PHIL SCHAAP, CHARLIE PARKER, DAVID REMNICK, THE NEW YORKER

About a week ago, the Beloved (who knows more about jazz than most people) told me excitedly that the latest issue of The New Yorker, a magazine I have been reading with some reverence since the late Sixties, had a Profile on the jazz broadcaster Phil Schaap, who’s been part of my musical consciousness for just as long. My first thought was, “Thank God! The New Yorker has rediscovered that jazz exists!” My second thought, an admittedly ignoble one, was “Why did it have to be a Profile of Phil?” Both those outbursts — idealistic and gloomy, require explication.

I first began reading the magazine because I so admired William Steig and the jazz critic Whitney Balliett. Years later, Balliett told me that when the mythic editor-in-chief William Shawn died, Tina Brown found jazz both reactionary and inexplicable, alien to the young moneyed readers she hoped to attract. Aside from a few surprisingly tepid pieces by Gary Giddins, The New Yorker seems to have considered jazz another version of model trains in the basement, not worth notice.

So a Profile of Phil Schaap, who has devoted himself to jazz with Messianic fervor, seemed at first a turning point. For one thing, it wasn’t a piece about The Death of Jazz. And although Remnick’s reportage was often snide, Schaap — in action or at rest — offers even a casual observer mountains of evidence for that point of view. But Remnick fixated on Schaap as anomaly — a flagpole sitter or the last maker of wooden shoes in Canarsie. It was The Subject As Freak, as Amiable Oddity, echoing Joseph Mitchell’s portrayal of Joe Gould.

It may not have been Remnick’s intent, but someone who knows little of jazz as a music, who thinks it arcane, will have those preconceptions reinforced. “Look how weird jazz is!” Remnick appears to be saying. “Look at Phil Schaap, its New York spokesman!” It would be sad if readers came away with the vague, subliminal notion that they had been reading an essay about jazz because Schaap plays it on WKCR-FM every weekday morning. For all his good intentions and his desire to keep jazz alive, Schaap is an entity quite distinctly different from the music he occasionally lets us hear: the Commentator isn’t the Text, and often obliterates it.

I wrote this Letter to The Editor. Wonder if The New Yorker will print it. Tune in tomorrow, precisely.

I’ve been listening to Phil Schaap for thirty years — a lifetime of words — and found Remnick’s Profile both wickedly accurate and sad. Ironically, Schaap can no longer separate his cherished facts from the music he wants to preserve. Lost in the brushstrokes, he no longer sees the painting. But Schaap isn’t Charlie Parker and his monomania has little to do with jazz itself. To hear jazz in its native habitat, unsullied by talk, let Remnick visit The Ear Inn any Sunday night. I’ll buy the first two rounds.

Postscript: I do not know for how long The New Yorker keeps pieces online, but at this moment, anyone can go to www.newyorker.com and read the Schaap Profile. Reactions, anyone?

17 responses to “PHIL SCHAAP, CHARLIE PARKER, DAVID REMNICK, THE NEW YORKER

  1. Michael,

    Many thanks for your kind comments on my blog – and coming from a writer as good as you they mean twice as much! It’s great to meet like-minded people blogging about jazz, and you have some killer posts here.
    Unfortunately, I’ve never heard Phil Schaap’s show so it’s hard to comment. Likewise, being a Brit, I’ve never read the New Yorker (oh, what sheltered lives we lead). It would, however, have been nice to see Mr Remnick write about jazz in it’s current, working form in New York. As you say, a trip to The Ear Inn to hear Kellso in full flight is a treat for anyone.

    I look forward to hopefully meeting you in NY in June.

    Best,

    Nik

  2. Nik: You can catch Phil Schaap’s Bird Flight by logging onto the webstream of WKCR.org at 8:20 AM ET, which I think would be 1:20 PM in London & 9:20 or 10:20 AM in Sao Paulo. As for the New Yorker, you can read the Schaap profile at their site, http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/05/19/080519fa_fact_remnick. John Herr

  3. claiborne ray

    Did you notice that William P. Gottlieb the photographer somehow became Walter P. Gottlieb? I had some correspondence with the chief fact checker, who promises that it has been corrected in the electronic version.

  4. I too have listened to Phil Schaap for the past 30 years – much less now than earlier – spent much time at the West End (and even his failed downstairs club, Phase 2), and can only say that I and everyone I know turn off the radio when his voice comes on. If you’re lucky, you tune in in the middle of an extended set of Bird. He’s done as much to turn new listeners off to jazz as he has to turn them on. It would be good for him to move on now. Remnick’s article was well done. It wasn’t about jazz. It was about an enormous bore with great taste in music.

  5. Chris Albertson

    Nik is fortunate to not have experienced Schaap, and correct (IMHO) in pointing out that Remnick’s piece was misdirected.

    Larry’s comment nails it. I said pretty much the same thing on a jazz board and was immediately accused of being a jealous old man who envies Phil his “success”! I’m still trying to figure out what that could be. 🙂

  6. It’s an honor to count Chris Albertson among readers of this blog for his work — the prose we can admire (his Bessie Smith biography) and the music he has produced — countless sessions of the highest quality. I speculate that some people in the jazz field are indeed envious of Phil for his access to a wide audience, but that is all.

  7. will friedwald

    Some good comments! But every art form that’s over 20 years old has a contingent of nerdy fans, scholars and archivists. I don’t think that the nerdy rock LP collectors depicted (very accurately) in HIGH FIDELITY (either the novel or the film) will scare potential fans away from listening to Dylan and The Beatles. Am sure that there are even rap & hip-hop nerds out there. Would nerdy classical collectors scare people away from listening to DON GIOVANNI? Anyhow, I’m enjoying the blog and the attention given to traditional jazz in NYC (even if I don’t agree with the comment about Gary Giddins – his pieces in TNY have been great so far, if you ask me).

  8. Delighted to count you among this blog’s readers, Will, as I have read you with pleasure for years. And you are right: any art form worth its weight in sixteenth notes should be sturdy enough to brush off the wild-eyed acolytes and devotees that it attracts. But jazz seems more fragile than Mozart, so we will have to see if its apparently immortal players and their lovely creations outlast those who would suggest that they hold the key to understanding it. Those who truly love an art don’t try to own it, I think.

  9. Daniel A. Freeman

    I am a 74 yr old guy who grew up with classical music from an early age and have been a serious amateur choral singer for most of my adult life. I didn’t begin my interest in Jazz until moving from NYC to Seattle in the early 60’s. Returning NYC I began listening to Phil Schaap on WKCR regularly. I consider myself something of an “ornithologist” (for a non-professional) and have a passion for the music of–and interest in the ‘tragic’ life of Charlie Parker. Despite the naysayers– I indulge Schaap’s admitted “long-windedness and irritating tenden cy to spin digressions within digressions– because I too have an interest in not only passionately enjoying listening to music but in breaking it down–analyzing it, if you will. Schaap has done more to promote Charlie Parker, the cause and passion for the heritage of jazz, etc., etc. than anybody else. Unlike some of the bloggers, I know for a fact that there are many devoted listeners to Bird-Flight including many professional jazz musicians. I know Schaap is controversial but his importance is NOT as some sort of freak as portrayed to some extent by Remmick. He has personally sacrificed for a worthy cause and enriched our lives. So I invite the ultra-critics to simply “tune-out”– you can spend your additional time instead, frequenting the New York Public Library (Lincoln Center branch) where one may borrow CDs of Bird–and reserve such as well.

  10. Ferdinand Cesarano

    Hi. Sorry to write this a year after the original post — and four months after the last response! But I just happenned across this blog post yesterday after re-reading the Remnick article (in which I, unlike Mr. Steinman, did not really pick up any snide tone).

    Contrary to some of the posters here, I am a big Phil Schaap fan. I listen to his Charlie Parker show every morning — and I don’t even care that much about bebop!

    I am primarily a fan of rock and roll; my jazz-related interest lies mainly in the big-band swing that bebop defined itself against. I also like ragtime, stride, and boogie-woogie; so Schaap’s Saturday show “Traditions in Swing” holds for me even greater interest than does his morning Parker show “Birdflight”.

    But, really, I listen to these shows more for Schaap than for the music. I find his delivery very entertaining, and I marvel at his thoroughness and his tirelessness. While Schaap speculates too much for the tastes of some of his critics, he never fails to label his speculations as such and to differentiate these speculations from the “knowable” (a favourite word of Schaap’s); so I’d contend that this approach is very helpful in spurring his audience to think about the topic he is discussing. (I also enjoy hearing when he gets peeved, especially at the equipment — he calls WKCR “the home of technical difficulties”!)

    If only we had a Phil Schaap in rock and roll! The closest thing we have is Eddie Trunk, who is a fine broadcaster and a great historian in his own right, but who typically does not devote as much time as Schaap does to exposition and discussion (though I have no doubt that he could do so if he chose to).

    Schaap is surely one of a kind. Even if some listeners chafe at his repetition or at his arrogance (neither of which bother me), I think it would be very unfair to fail to acknowledge him as one of the all-time great broadcasters.

    OK, now — having said how much I dig Phil Schaap, I will admit that he frequently makes me laugh with his malaprops. There are some words which he simply cannot seem to get a handle on. For instance, there is “amalgamum”, which is Schaapian for “amalgam”; and “triumverant”, Phil’s take on “triumverate”.

    But the most glorious Schaapism of them all occurs when he tries to tell us that some particular band was a “juggernaut”. I have recorded three versions of this word in the idiosyncratic Schaap tongue: “jorgenaut”, “jargonaut”, and “jongernaut”.

    (I won’t even mention the times when he attempts to “clarify” the URL for Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is jalc.org, by informing his audience that it is “Jazz at Lincoln Center dot organisation”. )

    Still, I really enjoy Phil Schaap, even given all of his peccadilloes; and I look forward to his shows at 8:20 every weekday morning, and especially at 6pm on Saturday.

  11. Dear Ferdinand, it would be more than churlish of me to deny you your pleasure. And — in all fairness — I listened to Phil a great deal in the last thirty years or so, and enjoyed all the music that he made it possible to hear. It is of late that I find his particular approach difficult: the proportion of talk to music; the hectoring didactic tone; the Messsianic trimmings. If you enjoy it, I hope you and he go on forever: you, rapt at the speaker; Phil, explaining some minutiae until the sun sets on the West. I just remember a different Phil, whose enthusiasms were less preachy and sour, more joyous. That youthful self seems gone. But a man who makes so much music possible can possibly be forgiven all his idiosyncracies, verbal and otherwise. Cheers, Michael

  12. I can’t understand someone complaining about Phil Schaap as a poor representative for jazz – it is senseless to me. It would be fantastic if our society were full of people like Phil – people with talent, a seriousness of purpose, a passion for excellence. Sadly too many people are uninterested in the sort of probing, enlightening questioning that Phil loves and would rather tune in to hear Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck rant about nothing at all.

  13. I agree that Phil loves the music and knows an astonishing amount about it, much of it first-hand. However, to propose that the alternative is Glenn Beck is a logical fallacy, as I am sure you are aware. Phil is without a doubt a brilliant fellow, but his talk-the-listener-to-death may be turning away an audience as much as it is attracting new ones. Have you listened to one of Phil’s three-hour programs recently? When I began listening to WKCR, forty years ago, the ratio of music to talk was much more on the side of the music . . . but each to his own!

  14. Phil is a rare find and a great treasure on the radio. Yes, I’ve sometimes pined for the music during a half-hour monologue but what I’ve absorbed – consciously or otherwise — is priceless. Phil’s enthusiasm draws me in, I can’t help but be interested. ( I only wish he would give other jazz greats the same detailed, loving treatment as Bird.) I don’t find him sour or preachy; and his excesses can be chalked up to love, can’t they? Phil conveys the importance and vitality of jazz when it was, hard to believe, popular music. And we owe him big for that.

  15. Phil is a fortunate man indeed to have so many heartfelt friends, and I wouldn’t deny him one. However, I wonder how many of the people who came to his defense (in opposition to what I’ve written in my post and the succeeding comments) ever heard Ed Beach on WRVR? He taught us all so much in sly, succinct ways, and he had the wise modesty to stay out of the music’s way. Phil is a brilliant savant to some, but whether he is saving jazz or not is still open to opinion.

  16. I have listened to phil since tthe sixties .he has great knowledge.his father was my best friend. I try to play good music on my radio show. I also try to produce good jazz shows. I .cogratulate the new yorker and phil for their contribution eric offner

  17. I agree with those who appreciate Phil, who I met once at Polygram Studios in Edison NJ – it was odd to hear his voice not coming out of a speaker!

    I want to take a moment to thank Phil Schaap, whose radio programs I recorded off-air in the late 80’s early 90’s and from whom I learned a great deal about Jazz – the players, the history and most of all, the music. My dad, his brothers and sisters planted the seeds – their love of music was inspiring – and Phil fertilized those seeds.

    I have only occasionally heard Phil’s program since moving away from NYC. I have sometimes called him on air just to let him know I was still listening.

    It’s true, Phil does indeed have a lot to say – and THAT drives some people crazy. But at his best moments, Phil Schaap transported me in time and gave me insights into the players, who laid the foundations of jazz, and the fertile environment from which this truly American music grew.

    Phil is like an eccentric uncle whose passion left a lasting impression. He inspired me. I share that passion with my students (I teach at an audio production school). I encourage ensemble playing – at a time when pop music is recorded one track at a time to a metronome – because I believe that inspired, passionate music (played by everyone, in real time) emotionally connects us, that the whole truly is greater than the sum of the parts.

    When I listen to Louis Armstrong, I often choke up – his soulfulness and humanity transcends the distance of time from then to now in a way that is so powerful (especially in these times when soul-less banskters roam the earth). I owe this Armstrong connection (and many others) to Phil.

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