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Phil Schaap 1951 – 2021

The longtime broadcaster and historian was a jazz expert—and advocate—of the highest order

Phil Schaap
Phil Schaap (photo: Frank Stewart)

Phil Schaap, a radio broadcaster, record producer, educator, and historian whose knowledge of jazz was legendary in its breadth and detail, died September 7 in Manhattan after a long battle with lymphoma. He was 70.

His death was first reported by WKCR-FM, the Columbia University radio station that had been Schaap’s broadcasting home for 50 years.

Schaap was best known for Bird Flight, his morning program on WKCR that examined Charlie Parker’s music. His broadcasting style left little in doubt about the scope of both his knowledge and his obsession: He spent at least as much time discussing the minutiae surrounding the recordings he played as he did the macro historical information. A 2008 New Yorker profile famously documented Schaap’s forensic on-air examination of how Parker pronounced the title of his 1949 record “Okiedoke.”

If he often seemed to pursue such trivial matters, however, it may have been because he had so thoroughly mastered the primary details of jazz history. Schaap was a seven-time Grammy winner for his efforts as an archivist, producer, and writer of historical notes. He was also a noted educator who coordinated the Swing University adult jazz-education program through Jazz at Lincoln Center (where he was also a curator). In an obituary for National Public Radio, writer Martin Johnson referred to Schaap as “the genre’s foremost evangelist.”

“There isn’t anyone in the country who knows more about this music than he,” the late drummer Max Roach told The New York Times of Schaap. (Schaap and Roach were particularly close; for 25 years, the broadcaster made an on-air “Hi, Max” one of Bird Flight’s signatures.)

Even Schaap, however, acknowledged that his obsessive nature could be overwhelming. “Sometimes I think I know more about what Dizzy Gillespie was thinking in 1945 than I do what I was thinking in 1967 or last week,” he told The New Yorker’s David Remnick.

Nevertheless, his efforts were appreciated. The National Endowment of the Arts named Schaap one of its 2021 class of Jazz Masters fellows.

Philip van Noorden Schaap was born April 8, 1951 in Queens, New York to Walter Schaap, a pioneer of jazz scholarship and discography, and the former Marjorie Wood, a librarian and classically trained pianist. Hence Schaap came naturally by his love of both jazz and encyclopedic knowledge. Growing up in the Queens neighborhood of Hollis, he was surrounded by musicians throughout his childhood—drummer Jo Jones babysat him—and those whom he didn’t meet naturally, he pushed himself upon. He maintained many of these friendships for the remainder of the musicians’ lives, and his own.

From a young age, Schaap possessed a photographic memory; he claimed that at two years old he could recite the U.S. presidents in alphabetical order. In later years, he could recall the dates and complete set lists of specific broadcasts he had done at WKCR. It was this remarkable memory that became his greatest asset in learning and imparting jazz history and scholarship.

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Enrolling at Columbia University in 1968 to study American history, Schaap became a disc jockey at WKCR in February 1970; his programming of jazz records and his own insights garnered him an audience not just of New York jazz fans, but of musicians as well; Miles Davis was a frequent (and frequently profane) caller, as re-enacted in Don Cheadle’s 2015 film Miles Ahead. In 1981, Schaap began his two regular, long-lived WKCR programs: Bird Flight on weekday mornings, and Traditions in Swing on Saturday nights. He also coordinated a large portion of the station’s birthday and memorial broadcasts for notable musicians.

Schaap was never content just to be a broadcaster, however. He booked concerts at the West End near Columbia; worked as an archivist for the Savoy Records label (where Parker had made his bebop recording debut); and began acquiring teaching jobs. The work at Savoy allowed him to produce a trove of important historical re-releases, which he would then go on to do at multiple labels. In 1990 he assembled one of jazz’s holy grails with Mosaic Records’ The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker. His production and note-writing work on Verve’s The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve 1945-1959 won him two Grammys in 1993. (He would win five more, for compilations of music by Parker, Miles Davis and Gil Evans, and Louis Armstrong.)

Schaap’s teaching career began when he himself was a freshman at Columbia, giving guest lectures; he worked for many years as an adjunct professor there. He also taught at Rutgers and Princeton Universities, Manhattan School of Music, and the Juilliard School. Known for being a difficult taskmaster, and at times for humiliating less knowledgeable students, Schaap was nonetheless remarked on for how much those students would recall learning from him. After the founding of Jazz at Lincoln Center, he helped to coordinate Swing University—the nonprofit’s jazz education component. He was a member of the Jazz Foundation of America’s Board of Directors Advisory committee, and his 2021 NEA Jazz Masters fellowship was as the A.B. Spellman Fellow for Jazz Advocacy.

He is survived by Susan Shaffer, his partner of 17 years.

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.