PHIL SCHAAP (1951-2021) AND HIS WORLDS

Phil Schaap, who moved on to another bandstand yesterday, was an unusually complex figure: he was his own novel, someone who deserves a Moliere or Henry James. Readers might know him as a tireless worker in the jazz vineyard: radio broadcaster, professor, writer, producer, enthusiast, and much more. Indeed, I can’t envision a Phil-moment that isn’t connected with the music: I cannot imagine him eating a sandwich, for instance, although I am sure he did. What I write today cannot do him justice, and I know that.

He loved the music, he loved the people even tangentially connected to it, but I think he loved facts the most. I have a magpie-mind, with fragments of information falling out of my ears, but Phil was several hundred encyclopedias packed into a tall talkative indefatigable human being. Baseball statistics, law cases, matrix numbers, reed sections, addresses, record label colors, telephone numbers, anecdotes, imitations of Jo Jones in full cry . . .

I knew Phil the way most people did — first, in 1970, as a disembodied voice coming out of a speaker, offering us music and words from Columbia University’s radio station, WKCR-FM, then, much later, as an eminent larger-than-life participant in the Hot Club of New York’s Monday-night Zoom sessions. But I also encountered him as the master of ceremonies at gigs — at the West End Cafe and elsewhere — and once or twice in 1972, between sets at Your Father’s Mustache, we actually had brief, somewhat tart conversations. Mostly I knew Phil as a series of observations, paragraphs, a sprawling narrative in human form.

He lived to spread the gospel of jazz. Making sure that as many people as possible knew the difference between the sounds of an alto and tenor saxophone was the highest goal. Finding “the best possible sound source,” too. Having us understand “the swing-song tradition,” the “Golden Era bebop five,” giving people “shout-outs” . . . he loved to do this and I think he needed to do this. Having a deep grasp of social-cultural-racial history was a true goal: reminding his audience that Teddy Wilson came before Jackie Robinson was vital to him.

Yes, he could talk beyond some people’s endurance, but he gave so much. Who else was interviewing Bernard Addison and Bennie Morton? Who else played Charlie Parker every weekday morning at 8:20 AM, ran day-and-week long festivals devoted to Louis, Mingus, Frank Newton, Coleman Hawkins?

There is a Phil-Schaap-sized hole in the cosmos, and not only the jazz cosmos. But the good news is that, in some way, evidence of his devotion and devotions will never go away. His interviews are being archived as I write this and will be available for us. And, like any great — albeit eccentric — teacher, he created students who have grown to be teachers. I think of the whole generation of WKCR radio hosts who have become our teachers because of Phil’s half-century and more, and an even younger generation: shout-outs (!) to Matt “Fat Cat” Rivera and Charles Iselin, among them.

One of my greatest heroes is the writer and editor William Maxwell, with whom I was privileged to work and to admire. In his last years, he devoted himself to playing the piano, his beloved Bach — but it wasn’t easy going. On his deathbed, facing the unknown calmly, he was with a young friend, who said, lightly, “In the next life, Bill, all those fugues will be so easy for you.” And Maxwell said, “In the next life I will not be making music. I will be music.”

Goodbye, Phil, and thank you for the decades of enthusiastic fervor. In the next life, perhaps you are a twenty-chorus Pres solo on SWEET SUE. You deserve no less.

10 responses to “PHIL SCHAAP (1951-2021) AND HIS WORLDS

  1. As a longtime listener to Phil Schaap’s programs on WKCR, I am greatly saddened by his departure from this life. He will BE music in the hereafter. Thank you for this remembrance.

  2. We mustn’t forget his Dad either….Phil came out of excellent jazz roots!!!!Another friend & carrier of the music we love He understood the lyrics:- It Don’t Mean A Thing If It A’aint Got That Swing.Amen!!!!!

  3. So appropriate. Genuine, thoughtful, a bit opinionated and delivered with panache. Perfect for jazz hero Phil Schaap.

  4. douglaspomeroy2871

    Well said, Michael. And you were right to have mentioned “eccentric”. What a remarkable memory he had!

  5. Nice interview of Phil Schaap by Richard Scheinin:
    https://www.sfjazz.org/onthecorner/nea-qa-phil-schaap/

  6. On a fairly recent Monday night Zoom convocation Phil was in attendance. Someone (maybe Fat Cat) asked him to further explain some point he had made.

    “You mean you want me to talk MORE??” was his bemused reply.

    Right then I wanted to tell him how much we loved him and deeply appreciated what he had done for the music.
    .
    I am telling him now.

  7. Well said

  8. Michael, thank you for this tribute to Phil.

  9. Michael, my only disagreement is with your observation that you couldn’t do Phil justice with your tribute. I think you captured the many aspects of the man and his importance, past and future, in the jazz world.
    I was lucky to conduct a video interview with him in ’03 and recall that I was anxious about speaking with a man who seemed to know EVERYTHING about jazz and the musicians who played it. Here is a link to the session:

    best wishes, Monk

  10. Thank you, Monk, twice.

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