Phil Schaap, Iconic Jazz DJ And NEA Jazz Master, Dies At 70


The voice of Phil Schaap was as distinctive as the trumpet of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk’s piano, or the sumptuous saxophone harmonies of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, but he didn’t didn’t make his mark as a musician. Instead, Schaap was one of the leading jazz scholars in America, and the genre’s foremost evangelist. He was a radio host, a record producer, a concert programmer, an educator, a reissue producer, an archivist and a researcher, and served many other functions beyond those. His voice was the sound of an authoritative, passionate belief in the power of jazz, and in 2021 the National Endowment for the Arts named Schaap a Jazz Master himself.

Schaap passed away on Sept. 7, after a long battle with cancer. His death was confirmed by Greg Scholl, executive director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, home to many of Schaap’s activities as curator, programmer, educator and historian.

“He was a true inspiration,” said Wynton Marsalis, the institution’s artistic director. “Phil was steadfast in his belief that the story of real, swinging jazz illustrates a positive, inclusive and successful metaphor for how we Americans could and would do better.”

Schaap was born April 6, 1951, and he grew up in Queens, the New York City borough that was home to many important musicians. His father, Walter Schaap, was one of the first jazz historians; his mother, Marjorie Wood Schaap, was a classically trained pianist and librarian, and an avid Louis Armstrong fan. His parent’s connections gave Phil access to many of the greatest musicians of the time: famously, he had as a babysitter Papa Jo Jones, the drummer in the Count Basie Orchestra and a cornerstone figure on his instrument.

Schaap told me in 2002 that another key mentor was trumpeter Buck Clayton, who impressed him with his knowledge and charm. He soaked up as much jazz history as he could, and also devised clever ways of meeting his idols. In 1966, during the subway strike, Schaap hitched a ride to school with Basie, and impressed the legendary bandleader with his detailed knowledge of his band.

Attending Columbia University, Schaap worked at the college radio station, WKCR-FM, helping it develop an unmatched international reputation for jazz scholarship, highlighted by marathon festivals devoted to jazz deities. New Yorker film critic Richard Brody heard the 1973 festival devoted to Charlie Parker, and was hooked. “He didn’t just express his love for jazz, he implanted it in others,” he tweeted. In 1973, Brody continued, “I was fifteen, just starting with jazz, and he Parkerized me for life.”

Via his activities at the radio station and as music director for the West End Café, a venue near campus, Schaap gained a reputation as a traditionalist, but he embraced innovators as well. Writer Adam Shatz recalls doing a show that preceded Schaap’s “Bird Flight,” a 70-minute daily focus on Parker’s music. Shatz was finishing his show with an Ornette Coleman track that would extend into Schaap’s time, and offered to fade it out. But Schaap, according to Shatz, was adamant: “At ‘KCR, we never interrupt Ornette.”

“Phil was old school; jazz, for him, was a church,” Shatz said. “He didn’t merely love jazz, he believed in it. And he was one of its greatest messengers.”

Hank Shteamer, senior music editor at Rolling Stone, also worked at the station as a student and he was impressed with the scholarly seriousness that Schaap brought to the music, as if jazz were part of the school’s famous core curriculum. Shteamer recalls Schaap saying that “studying bebop without Kenny Clarke is like studying Western literature without Shakespeare.”

In addition to his wide-ranging portfolio at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Schaap taught at Julliard, Columbia and Princeton. He was steadfast about the importance of exciting young people about jazz. For him, he felt it was paying it forward. Trombonist, educator and jazz historian Vincent Gardner met Schaap at Lincoln Center in 2001 and felt an immediate kinship over the passion for jazz details; both loved the alternate take of a Dizzy Gillespie track. “Phil’s eyes bulged,” Gardner recalled. “For the next twenty years, he enriched my love of and dedication to jazz like no one else could have.”

Schaap graduated from Columbia in 1973, but remained a fixture at WKCR, hosting weekday programs on Parker as well as other weekly shows and mentoring dozens if not hundreds of jazz professionals. One of them, Matthew Rivera, runs the Hot Club of New York, hosts a show on WKCR, teaches jazz history classes, collects 78 rpm records and serves as the head archivist of Phil’s collection. “The passion Phil conveyed often felt like a verbal homage to Paul Gonsalves’s legendary 27 choruses on ‘Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue’ at Newport ’56,” Rivera said.

Schaap’s love also affected veteran musicians. Saxophonist and fellow NEA Jazz Master Charles Lloyd stumbled onto Schaap’s broadcasts in the early ’90s, and was blown away by Schaap’s rigor and perspicacity. “Phil was an educator in the purest and highest sense of the word,” Lloyd said. “He loved all of humanity and made an invaluable contribution–the archive of his broadcasts alone is a priceless treasure, which I hope will continue to be in daily rotation for the benefit of the universe.”

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