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Michael Cuscuna Remembers Phil Schaap

The record producer pens a Farewell tribute to the longtime broadcaster and historian (4/6/51 – 9/7/21)

Phil Schaap (photo: Frank Stewart/Courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center)
Phil Schaap (photo: Frank Stewart/Courtesy of Jazz at Lincoln Center)

The jazz world is full of singular human beings. A few stand out among the rest. Phil Schaap was one of them. He was exposed to jazz early on thanks to his parents, discographer Walter Schaap and pianist Marjorie Wood Schaap. By age six, the precocious young jazz fan was impressing and befriending great swing musicians. It soon became evident that Phil had an amazing ability to store and recall vast amounts of information, primarily in jazz and baseball as well as American history. He chose a hectic life that blended academia, radio, and producing reissues. His vivid, detailed descriptions of recording sessions that took place a dozen years before his birth combined facts with educated guesses. I often said that there were many discographers, but only Phil knew the lunch orders for each session.

Phil knew his special talents and was not too modest to show them off. But he put his infinite memory and recall to great use in jazz education, archiving, and restoration. When Bob Porter led Charlie Lourie and me to newly discovered Dean Benedetti recordings of Charlie Parker that were mostly scores of discs of incomplete performances captured on a portable disc cutter, we knew that the only way to deal with this treasure trove was to drop it off at [mastering engineer] Jack Towers’ house in Maryland and put Schaap on a train headed that way. He spent months making sense of these hours of recorded artifacts. What he did [as seen and heard on the 1990 Mosaic set The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker] was nothing short of miraculous.

A few years later, when I was faced with researching and producing Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings, I wasted little time in bringing Phil into the project. Gil’s perfectionism and George Avakian’s love of tape splices were a minefield for all but Phil. His obsessive drive to strip the music down to its creative process was rivaled only by his unyielding enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge.

The radio host (i.e., the explainer) and historian in Phil drove him to write voluminous and largely incomprehensible liner notes for both of these projects. I felt the way Maxwell Perkins must have felt when Thomas Wolfe delivered him the writings that would become Look Homeward, Angel. Thus began, in each case, weeks upon weeks at the computer making Phil’s prose fit for consumption. With Phil’s help and lots of cigarettes and wine, his methodology and discoveries were clearly documented. They will go down in the canons of jazz history, as will his extraordinary talent and work on so many historical jazz projects.

“One of a kind” seems too inadequate a turn of phrase to embody Phil Schaap. A vacuum exists where he once was.

Phil Schaap 1951 – 2021