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Phil Schaap: Coaching the Crowd

How Lincoln Center's resident jazz aficionado is cultivating a new jazz audience

Phil Schaap
Phil Schaap (photo: Frank Stewart)
Phil Schaap at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Swing University
Phil Schaap at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Swing University (photo: Frank Stewart)
Phil Schaap and Wynton Marsalis
Phil Schaap and Wynton Marsalis at a JALC Swing University session (photo: Frank Stewart)
Phil Schaap
Phil Schaap (photo: Frank Stewart)
Vincent Gardner, trombonist and Swing University instructor
Phil Schaap and Milt Jackson
Phil Schaap and Milt Jackson on staircase to Charlie Parker's former NYC home (photo courtesy of Phil Schaap)
Phil Schaap

When people talk about “jazz education,” whether in magazines like this one or in seminars at conferences and festivals, they’re almost always talking about training musicians. But there’s another kind of jazz education that’s seldom discussed: training audiences. The latter is at least as important as the former: For what’s the purpose of having performers if they don’t have listeners? So why does modern jazz education operate as if it were a public school system that devotes all of its efforts to creating writers and never bothers with creating readers?

“Music is never going to get better until the audiences get better,” claims Phil Schaap, perhaps the leading advocate of jazz education for listeners. “Let me give you an example: Jerome Kern wanted to make money and yet the chord progression to ‘Yesterdays’ is profound. Why did he do that? Because the audience could tell the difference. If the audience can’t tell the difference, that motivation isn’t there, and that chord progression never gets written. It’s a matter of supply and demand. If there’s no demand, the supply will be limited.”

It’s early May, and Schaap, a tall, bulky man in a chocolate-brown suit, a red and green tie and wavy red hair, is sitting in the dressing room of Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Six music stands are stacked atop one another in the corner, and through the nearby windows is a fifth-floor view of Columbus Circle and Central Park in Manhattan. Sitting at the same table with us is Vincent Gardner, a trombonist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and the man being groomed to succeed Schaap as the head of JALC’s Swing University, an array of classes for the non-performing jazz fan.

“For my master’s degree at Rutgers University, I’m writing my thesis on the history of jazz in Brooklyn,” says Gardner. “Phil turned me on to the Brooklyn pianist Gene DiNovi, who played with Lester Young, Benny Goodman and Fats Navarro. Gene told me that in his day, you could walk down the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant and hear people whistling the tune from ‘Flying Home’ or singing lines from the latest Charlie Parker record—and these weren’t musicians but accountants and bus drivers. The audiences back then were so hip. Nowadays people have no clue. We could be completely inept and they’d still clap. We could make bad musical choices and they wouldn’t complain. We want people to complain when we mess up, because that means they’re really listening, and that’s the greatest feeling of all.”

“The problem with jazz education today,” Schaap explains, “is we’re creating all these musicians but we’re not creating an audience to support them. As a result, the majority of graduates with degrees in jazz performance don’t work as professional jazz musicians—and the percentage is going up. The problem has been bearded by the fact that the older generation of jazz fans hasn’t completely died out yet, but that beard is coming off. Even here at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the same kinds of shows that sold out in the ’90s are only 2/3 full now. I don’t make any friends by pointing this out, because everyone’s trying to do a beautiful thing in jazz education, but it’s unsustainable unless the audience is rebuilt.”

“I’m completely with him on that,” Wynton Marsalis, artistic director at JALC, says later. “The arts in general have to create audiences. To do this, you have to make information available. You have to make concerts part of normal family life, where it’s natural to say, ‘We’re going to a concert today.’ You have to make all members of the family jazz fans so you get away from this awful generation gap. Otherwise, talent that’s young doesn’t have any reason to mature, because it’s always told to focus on the young audience. Education allows the audience to demand more from the performer instead of the performer always making demands on the audience.”

Schaap is notorious for challenging people, even aggravating them. He has been known to disparage those who don’t know as much jazz history as he does—which seems a bit unfair, because no one knows as much jazz history as Schaap. On his radio show Bird Flight, devoted entirely to Charlie Parker and broadcast by New York’s WKCR-FM every weekday morning, he goes into such arcane detail that he sometimes takes 15 minutes to introduce a two-minute tune.

Yet his reputation as an imperious know-it-all, while not completely unfounded, is misleading. His occasionally overbearing demeanor is triggered more by his passion for the music than by his own ego. And when you get him in an informal setting, like the Dizzy’s dressing room, he proves unexpectedly warm and funny, and a scheduled 90-minute interview turns into 150 minutes of jokes, anecdotes and spirited give-and-take. Here, for example, he describes his own background as a musician: “I was a one-trick pony. If you wanted someone to play a high trumpet note at 4 a.m. at a dance gig, I was your man. But that was my only strength; intonation was my weakness. I decided the world didn’t need another mediocre trumpeter, so I gave my horn to Ed ‘Tiger’ Lewis, a bebopper in Brooklyn.” He breaks into a boyish, mischievous grin and adds, “I’m on a couple of jazz records, but I’ll never tell which ones. I’m also on some rock ‘n’ roll records, but I’m tracking them down one by one and breaking them in two.”


At a Jazz 201 session for Swing U this past spring, Schaap talked without notes to 22 students sitting at long banquet tables in a semicircle before him. If Jazz 101 is an introduction to the genre’s major artists and styles, 201 retraces jazz’s entire history, helping students “to hear the details,” as the course description puts it. Because he only had eight Monday nights to do this, Schaap crammed the entire 1950s into a two-hour class the night I attended. “This evening,” Schaap told his students, “we’re going to cover cool jazz, hard bop, the use of modes and free jazz. … All these styles are an appraisal of bebop, a tweaking of it, an adjustment. Bebop is the parent language of all these new styles.” Schaap barely paused before leaping into cool jazz. “Cool retains bebop’s depth of harmony and complete musicianship, but the rhythmic line is tinkered with. They play Bird and Dizzy’s notes but with Billie Holiday’s or the Basie Band’s rhythm.”

He bent over the stereo next to him and proved his point by playing tracks by Charlie Parker, Count Basie and Gerry Mulligan in rapid succession, so we could hear how the third track was a blending of the first two. Later, while playing Art Blakey’s version of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” to demonstrate how hard bop evolved out of bebop, Schaap sat in a bar chair, his hands folded in his lap, nodding to the music. When the tune finished, a student said, “That’s that R&B tune, ‘The Huckleberry.'”

“You mean ‘The Hucklebuck,'” Schaap replied with a smile, “a 1949 hit for Paul Williams.”

There are few facts Schaap doesn’t know, but one of those facts is that he turned 61 in April, and needs to cut back on his frantic schedule. This past fall, after three decades of teaching the course at various institutions, he handed over Jazz 101 to Gardner, who had already been teaching the Bebop course for Swing U and who will also take over Jazz 201 in the fall of 2013. Schaap has found his successor at last and couldn’t be happier. “I knew Vince was a different specimen,” Schaap says, “when I was playing Dizzy’s ‘A Night in Tunisia’ at my desk and he said, ‘That’s an alternate take.’ That caught my attention. How many musicians can tell it’s an alternate take after four bars? We started talking and he said, ‘Ain’t it a shame no one plays bebop live anymore?’ I was surprised again; that was the first time I’d heard someone from his generation say that. I’d been having this debate with Wynton for four years about whether bebop and hard bop were the same thing. I said, ‘Did Wynton put you up to this?'”

He hadn’t. The 40-year-old Gardner, a tall man with a close-cropped Afro, thin goatee and gold earring, explains that he had come up with this theory on his own. “Bebop sounds so different from hard bop,” he insists. “The solos and melodic lines are more adventurous, more worked out in bebop; the rhythms are more swinging and danceable. Hard bop was less connected to swing music and more connected to blues and gospel, full of 6/8 shuffles that you never heard in bebop. Today I can put together dozens of hard-bop bands, but I don’t think I could put together more than one good bebop band without duplicating personnel.”

Gardner, who grew up in Hampton, Va., the son of two music educators, seriously considered a career as a history teacher before getting drawn into jazz performance. The Swing U courses at JALC allow him to combine his twin passions. “There’s a great line in the movie Amistad,” he says, “where Cinque tells John Quincy Adams, ‘I’m going to invoke my ancestors to give us strength, because the only reason they existed was for this moment right now.’ But to draw on your past like that, you have to know it.”

Schaap’s fulltime job for the JALC is “curator,” and the evening classes he teaches are just a small part of it. “He helps with all programs,” Marsalis says. “He tells us about the songs, who wrote and arranged them, who played them, what else was going on at the time. We might ask him who arranged ‘In the Mood.’ It says Joe Garland on the record, but Phil says the arrangement was by Eddie Durham. He brings the human element into the conversation, because he knew Eddie.

“And it’s not just on our historical programs; he knows things about our own music that we don’t remember. One time, for example, we were talking about a Brazilian concert we’d done nine years earlier, and he identified the best song we’d done that night. I went back to listen to the tape and he was right. His ability to recall dates, tunes and facts is remarkable.”

Whenever he can, Marsalis pulls Schaap away from his desk for a conversation on some aspect of jazz that’s been bugging him. Sometimes the two men sit in Marsalis’ office; sometimes they go out to a bar or restaurant. But no matter where they are, Schaap is soon challenging his boss’ assumptions as readily as he does the students in Swing U or listeners on WKCR. In a weird way, that’s part of his job description. “Believe me,” Marsalis says with a rueful laugh, “I have no lack of people in my life who disagree with me. But there’s a big difference between people who are disagreeing with you because they’re being contrarian and people who are disagreeing with you because they’re being honest. You need people who have the integrity to tell you what they really believe, not just to agree or disagree with you. That’s Phil.”


Schaap started stockpiling this knowledge from a very young age. “I got lucky,” he says. “I got trained by the originators.” His parents, who lived in Queens, were bohemian jazz fans: his mother, Marjorie, a librarian and his father, Walter, an early jazz critic. In the summer of 1956, Marjorie and her 5-year-old son Phil were backstage at the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival, bantering with members of the Basie Band. When the precocious youngster correctly identified Prince Robinson as the tenor saxophonist for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, drummer Jo Jones told Marjorie, “Madame, you’ve got yourself a new babysitter.” Before long, Phil was spending more and more time at Jones’ Manhattan apartments, and the lessons became more sophisticated as the years went by.

“When I was 10,” Schaap recalls, “we listened to Herschel Evans and Jo said, ‘What does that sound like to you, mister?’ I said, ‘It sounds friendly.’ ‘That’s right,’ Jo said. ‘The first thing to know about Herschel Evans is he’s your friend.’ When I got out of high school, he asked, ‘What are you into these days?’ I said, ‘I heard Doc Cheatham last night.’ ‘Doc’s a good man,’ Jo said. ‘Is he still smoking those ratty cigars?’ Then he’d tell me everything there was to know about Doc Cheatham—how it happened and why it happened. We’d listen to his records—we were always quiet while the records were playing—and then we’d talk about them.

“Another time he told me, ‘If you want to hear Lester Young becoming the Lester Young we love today, listen to bars 25-37 of his solo on “Lady Be Good.”‘ Then we’d listen to those bars 10 times in a row, then the whole solo, then sections of the solo. After that we’d have tea and watch Bugs Bunny cartoons. At first I thought that we watched them because I was a kid, but I eventually realized he’d be watching them even if I weren’t there. He just loved Bugs Bunny.”

Schaap went out of his way to meet dozens of legendary jazz musicians in New York: Roy Eldridge, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, Buck Clayton, Milt Hinton, Buddy Tate, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sun Ra and many more. Why did Jones and his friends spend so much time with a young kid from another family, another borough and another race? “There weren’t too many people interested in what they had to say,” Schaap speculates. “When someone was genuinely interested, they were glad to talk. I didn’t understand that then, but I understand it now.”

In 1970, as a freshman at Columbia University, he started spinning jazz records on the school’s radio station, WKCR, the gig he still holds 42 years later. In 1972, as a college junior, he became the founder and manager of the Countsmen, a band of Basie alumni. A year later, as a senior, he became manager of the West End, a Manhattan jazz club that specialized in musicians born before Pearl Harbor. In 1980, he began working as an oral historian and adjunct faculty at Rutgers University’s Institute of Jazz Studies.


Schaap’s jazz education career began long before Rutgers, however. Dwight Miner was teaching a course at Columbia on American society in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, and he wanted a guest lecturer on jazz. Several people told him there was this 16-year-old high school student in Queens who knew everything about jazz in those years. So Miner overlooked Schaap’s age and hired him. “I was nervous, of course,” Schaap admits, “but I knew what records I wanted to play, and I knew what I wanted to say. Dwight Miner made me feel like a million bucks, and when he handed me a C-note, that felt like a million bucks. I kept doing it, but I started to ask myself, ‘What’s wrong with this picture? The music department hates jazz, and the history department is hiring me, a teenager, to lecture on jazz.'”

But Schaap was hooked on teaching. For better or worse, his WKCR radio shows became jazz history classes, and when schools like Rutgers, Columbia and Juilliard began to offer jazz courses, Schaap was offered courses—but only as adjunct faculty. The pay was low, and he had to scramble for a living by combining the teaching and guest lecturing with the occasional record-mastering gig and contribution to discographies, liner notes and jazz history books. Despite three Grammy Awards for his work on reissues, it was a precarious existence until he finally landed a full-time job at JALC in 2001.

No matter what the nature or location of the job, however, it was all part of the same mission for Schaap: to raise the level of knowledge about jazz. His purpose was not to train virtuoso performers—though if he can impart some knowledge to musicians such as Marsalis and Gardner, he’s glad to do it. His purpose is to create a better-educated audience, because he believes that is the very air that the music needs to stay alive. “My whole thing about teaching,” Schaap emphasizes, “is to not spoil anyone’s fun. Many of the people who come to Swing U are afraid that you have to know so much; they come in with an inferiority complex. I try to get rid of that as soon as possible. I try to show them that if they can count beats, if they can follow the form of an AABC song or a blues, it will all begin to make sense. They’re already hearing a lot; we just have to make them aware of what they’re hearing.

“When I was in high school in Queens,” Schaap continues, “I got my friends to listen to Benny Goodman’s Live at Carnegie Hall, and they were wigging out to this concert recorded before we were born. I said, ‘I’ve never seen you respond so much to this music. Was it the solos, the clarinet or what?’ And they said, ‘Solos? Clarinet? Huh?’ I realized they weren’t hearing what I was hearing, weren’t enjoying what I was enjoying. So I have this faith that the more you hear, the more you’ll enjoy.” Originally Published

Geoffrey Himes

Geoffrey Himes has written about jazz and other genres of music on a regular basis for the Washington Post since 1977 and has also written for JazzTimes, Paste, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, National Public Radio, and others. His book on Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A., was published by Continuum Books in 2005 and he’s currently working on a major book for the Country Music Hall of Fame. He has been honored for Music Feature Writing by the Deems Taylor/ASCAP Awards (2003, 2005, 2014 and 2015), the New Orleans Press Awards, the Abell Foundation Awards and the Music Journalism Awards.