Phil Schaap, Grammy-Winning Jazz D.J. and Historian, Dies at 70
Phil Schaap, who explored the intricacy and history of jazz in radio programs that he hosted, Grammy-winning liner notes that he wrote, music …
Phil Schaap, who explored the intricacy and history of jazz in radio programs that he hosted, Grammy-winning liner notes that he wrote, music series that he programmed and classes that he taught, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 70.
His partner of 17 years, Susan Shaffer, said the cause was cancer, which he had had for four years.
Mr. Schaap was host of an assortment of jazz radio programs over the years, but he was perhaps best known as a fixture on WKCR-FM, the student-run radio station of Columbia University, where his delightfully (some would say infuriatingly) obsessive daily program about the saxophonist Charlie Parker, “Bird Flight,” was an anchor of the morning schedule for decades.
On that show, he would parse Parker recordings and minutiae endlessly. In a 2008 article about Mr. Schaap in The New Yorker, David Remnick described one such discourse in detail, relating Mr. Schaap’s aside about the Parker track “Okiedoke,” which veered into a tangent about the pronunciation and meaning of the title and its possible relation to Hopalong Cassidy movies.
“Perhaps it was at this point,” Mr. Remnick wrote, “that listeners all over the metropolitan area, what few remained, either shut off their radios, grew weirdly fascinated, or called an ambulance on Schaap’s behalf.”
But if jazz was an obsession for Mr. Schaap, it was one built on knowledge. Since childhood he had absorbed everything there was to know about Parker and countless other jazz players, singers, records and subgenres. He won three Grammys for album liner notes — for a Charlie Parker boxed set, not surprisingly (“Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve,” 1989), but also for “The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, 1945-1959” (1993) and “Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings” (1996).
He did more than write and talk about jazz; he also knew his way around a studio and was especially adept at unearthing and remastering the works of jazz greats of the past. He shared the best historical album Grammy as a producer on the Holiday and Davis-Evans recordings, as well as on “Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings” (2000).
Over the years he imparted his vast knowledge of jazz to countless students, teaching courses at Columbia, Princeton, the Manhattan School of Music, the Juilliard School, Rutgers University, Jazz at Lincoln Center and elsewhere.
“They say I’m a history teacher,” he said in a video interview for the National Endowment for the Arts, which this year named him a Jazz Master, the country’s highest official honor for a living jazz figure, but he viewed his role differently.
“I teach listening,” he said.
He had what one newspaper article called “a flypaper memory” for jazz history, so much so that musicians would sometimes rely on him to fill in their own spotty memories about play dates and such.
“He knows more about us than we know about ourselves,” the great drummer Max Roach told The New York Times in 2001.
Mr. Remnick put it simply in the New Yorker article.
“In the capital of jazz,” he wrote, “he is its most passionate and voluble fan.”
Philip Van Noorden Schaap was born on April 8, 1951, in Queens.
His mother, Marjorie Wood Schaap, was a librarian and a classically trained pianist, and his father, Walter, was a jazz scholar and vice president of a company that made educational filmstrips.
He grew up in the Hollis section of Queens, which had become a magnet for jazz musicians. The trumpeter Roy Eldridge lived nearby. He would see the saxophonist Budd Johnson every day at the bus stop.
“Everywhere you turned, it seemed, there was a giant walking down the street,” Mr. Schaap told Newsday in 1995.
By 6 he was collecting records. Jo Jones, who had been the drummer for Count Basie’s big band for many years, would sometimes babysit for him; they’d play records and Mr. Jones would elaborate on what they were hearing.
Seeing the 1959 movie “The Gene Krupa Story,” about the famed jazz drummer, fueled his interest even more, and by the time he was at Jamaica High School in Queens he was talking jazz to classmates constantly.
“As much as they gave me a hard time and isolated me as a weirdo,” he told Newsday, “they knew what I was talking about. My peers may have laughed at me, but they knew who Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were.”
In 1970, as a freshman at Columbia, where he was a history major, Mr. Schaap became a D.J. at WKCR and set about on a lifelong mission to keep the genre’s past alive.
“One thing I wanted to impart,” he told the radio program “Jazz Night in America” this year, “was that the music hadn’t started with John Coltrane.”
He graduated from Columbia in 1974, but he was still broadcasting on WKCR half a century later. He started “Bird Flight” in 1981 and — as the “Jazz Night in America” host, the bassist Christian McBride, noted during the recent episode devoted to Mr. Schaap — he kept the show going for some 40 years, longer than Parker, who died at 34, was alive. He also hosted an assortment of other jazz programs at WKCR and other stations over the years, including WNYC in New York and WBGO in Newark, N.J.
In 1973 he started programming jazz at the West End, a bar near Columbia, and he continued to do so into the 1990s. He particularly liked to bring in older musicians from the swing era, providing them — as he put it in a 2017 interview with The West Side Spirit — “with a nice last chapter of their lives.”
In the “Jazz Night in America” interview, he said the West End series was among his proudest accomplishments.
“A lot of them were not even performing anymore,” he said of the saxophonist Earle Warren, the trombonist Dicky Wells and the many other musicians he put onstage there.
“They were my friends,” he added. “They were my teachers. They were geniuses.”
Mr. Schaap, who lived in Queens and Manhattan, also did a bit of managing — including of the Countsmen, a group whose members included Mr. Wells and Mr. Warren — and curated Jazz at Lincoln Center for a time.
As an educator, broadcaster and archivist, he could zero in on details that would escape a casual listener. He’d compare Armstrong and Holiday recordings to show how Armstrong influenced Holiday’s vocal style. He’d demand that students be able to hear the difference between a solo by Armstrong solo and one by the cornetist Bix Beiderbecke.
Mr. Schaap’s marriage to Ellen LaFurn in 1997 was brief. Ms. Shaffer survives him.
His National Endowment for the Arts honor this year was the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, presented to “an individual who has made major contributions to the appreciation, knowledge and advancement of the American jazz art form.”
In a 1984 interview with The Times, Mr. Schaap spoke of his motivation for his radio shows and other efforts to spread the gospel of jazz.
“I was a public-school music student for 12 years and never heard the name Duke Ellington,” he said. “Now I can correct such wrongs. I can be a Johnny Appleseed through the transmitter.”