Updated: Sep 11
Phil Schaap was a man who wore many hats when it came to jazz. He was a radio host, a record producer, a concert programmer, an educator, a reissue producer, an archivist, a researcher, and a walking encyclopedia when it came to jazz history. To put it simply, Phil was a jazz enthusiast. From distinguishing between a solo by Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke, to knowing who was playing which instrument on the third session of a recording, Phil Schaap’s well of knowledge was insanely impressive. Renowned drummer Max Roach told The New York Times about Schaap, "There isn’t anyone in the country who knows more about this music than he [does]…He knows more about us than we know about ourselves,” (Source).
Phil Schaap in his studio | Image sourced from The New York Times/ Angel Franco
While attending Columbia University, Schaap worked at the college radio station, WKCR-FM, helping it develop a reputation for jazz scholarship that reached international levels. From 1970 up until 2020, he worked with the station, sharing the beauty of jazz with his listeners. Through multi-day marathon festivals devoted to jazz greats and segments highlighting the favorite songs of jazz musicians, he built a space for people to learn and discuss jazz looking at the past and toward the future. While many know of him, how many know these details about his life? Learn about the fabulous life of Phil Schaap with us in today’s edition of “Did You Know?”
A Musician Himself…
Phil Schaap interviewed many musicians over the years. But did you know that Phil played an instrument too? As a child, he learned to play the trumpet. He even took a couple of lessons with legendary jazz trumpeter Roy Eldridge. Although Phil himself claims he wasn’t very good whenever asked about it, he filled in for Charlie Shavers on a gig once, so he must have been better than he says!
In the Family…
Phil’s love of music comes as no surprise when you look at his upbringing. His mother, Marjorie Wood Schaap, was a librarian and a classically trained pianist, and his father, Walter Schaap, was one of the first jazz scholars that also translated French for jazz scholars. His father was also the vice president of a company that made educational filmstrips, a process that began with a collaboration with jazz photographer William P. Gottlieb. Growing up in Hollis, Queens, Phil was in the hotspot of jazz, and jazz was always playing in his house. He said about this upbringing, “The pioneers of jazz were still alive then, and I had known them from literal infancy.” (Source). He would go to jazz performances with his mother, and Phil started collecting his own records by the age of 6.. A love of jazz was fostered in him from a young age thanks to the environment and people in his life.
An Unlikely Babysitter…
It’s no secret that over the years, Phil became friends with a lot of jazz greats. But did you know that one of them was once his babysitter? Attending his first jazz performance with his mother, the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival, his mother was asked what she thought of Basie’s vocalist who was Joe Williams at the time. When Jo Jones (who was a drummer in the Basie band in the 1930s and 40s) heard her reply that she preferred their previous vocalist Jimmy Rushing, he called her to reply, “lovely.” As Jo and his mother spoke, he leaned down to Phil and asked him if he knew who Prince Robinson was. When Phil replied that he was a tenor player for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers, Jo Jones was so flabbergasted that he knew this information that he said to his mother Marjorie, “Madame, you’ve got yourself a new babysitter” (Source).
Jo Jones was just one of many musicians Phil interacted with in his youth, people he called the “grandfathers of jazz.” He also lived near Milt Hinton and Buck Clayton. When Jo Jones would babysit him, it wasn’t what you’d typically picture babysitting to be. They’d play records from the Schaap family collection, and Mr. Jones would discuss them with Phil. Phil recalled a time that Jones said to him, “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.’” After listening to the bars 10 times in a row, then the whole solo, then sections of the solo, they would 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” (Source). Schaap also said that Jones would pull a book down from the shelf and tell Schaap, “All right. Read 20 pages to me,” After he finished, Jones said, “Go home and tell your mother I’m not interfering with your education” (Source). This is just one of the dozens of fascinating accounts that Schaap had with some of the jazz greats.
The number of interviews…
Mr. Schaap became a D.J. at WKCR in 1970 as a freshman at Columbia, where he was a history major. The station at the time he joined was in transition. Musically, a lot of what they covered was eclectic, leaning toward classical. At a time when jazz was falling out of popularity, Phil and the rest of the WKCR team decided to embrace the genre and bring it out of the shadow of other growing genres like rock and roll. When asked why he decided to begin the program in the first place, he said, “one thing I wanted to impart,” he told the radio program “Jazz Night in America” in 2021, “was that the music hadn’t started with John Coltrane.”
Through hours of broadcasts, and years of hard work, WKCR became an international sensation that became known for its impressive coverage of jazz from history to current events. From 1970 all the way until 2020, Schaap worked for the station, conducting interviews, hosting performances, and running 24-hour marathons decided to one artist. Knowing the longevity of his career, have you ever wondered about how many interviews he’s conducted? Based on what I can find in records, Phil Schaap conducted or was a part of over 1,500 interviews, with his last one taking place in February of 2020 with Sharif Abdus-Salaam who interviewed him about his 50th anniversary on air. That’s a whole lot of jazz talk!
One of His Shows Outlived the Legend…
Phil Schaap hosted much different Jazz radio shows in his time on WKCR including, “Jazz Alternatives”, “Out to Lunch” and “Traditions in Swing.” Of them all, one stands out amongst the rest and that is “Bird Flight.” This 70-minute daily show centered on Charlie Parker's music went on for 40 years since 1981. Charlie Parker, nicknamed “Bird” was a legend in jazz who Phil Schaap loved to highlight his brilliance. Charlie Parker sadly lived a short life, only making it to age 34. This means that Schaap’s radio show commemorating Parker’s brilliance went on for longer than Parker was alive. This shows Schaap’s dedication and also Parker’s immense reach. He may have only lived for 34 years, but his impact continues for many decades and still lives on today.
Impact of The West End…
Beginning in 1973 to the 1990s, Schaap booked jazz acts over at The West End. The West End was a Manhattan club with nightly shows seven days a week. Once Schaap started working with WKCR, he started a jazz program over at The West End to give people a place to experience jazz again. He hired primarily older musicians with less work those days. 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.”
It was important to him to have a place for these jazz greats to be heard again. “The musicians who raised me, a lot of them were not even performing anymore and the gig is what the gig was. You’re playing weddings and bar mitzvahs and soundtracks for commercials and TV shows and when I created the West End, I created a comfortable environment for them to make their music their way again” (Source). Many of the musicians who played The West End during that time commended Phil for giving them a place to feel appreciated once more. Through the years, the venue saw Howard McGhee, Clyde Bernhardt, Russell Procope, and many many others return to the stage. One of the groups he helped manage who did regular performances at The West End was The Countsmen, a Count Basie alumni band that include Dicky Wells and Earle Warren. This impact was huge for the area, and for jazz. Phil Schaap worked with The West End for 19 years sharing the joy of jazz.
There are so many interesting stories from Phil Schaap’s life, and while anyone who knew him might have already known these facts, we hope there are jazz lovers out there that still learned something new. At the very least, we hope that we’ve done our part to share his legacy with more people. After a long battle with cancer, Phil Schaap passed away at the age of 70. He may longer be with us, but he lives on through his interviews, his research, and the impact he made on the many people he interacted with throughout his career. Do you have a story of Phil Schaap or how his jazz programs impacted you? Please share in the comments!
Thanks to the additional sources below for helping me put together this blog.
Matthew Rivera (Phil Schaap and jazz expert)
Written by Kristen Petronio