A conversation with phil schaap

by Andy Karp

Over the course of his extraordinary career in jazz, Phil Schaap has played many roles: radio host, nightclub promoter, record producer, researcher and educator. But the role that perhaps best defines Schaap—one he was seemingly born to play—is jazz griot. Like the West African griots, he is an oral historian dedicated to preserving culture and lore. Schaap has spent most of his 56 years absorbing stories and collecting information, often directly from the musicians themselves. He has amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz eras and styles, particularly swing and bebop. His command of biographical and discographical information astounds even the most erudite jazz fans. Yet it’s Schaap’s talent for weaving this information into the context of American history and pop culture that makes him an exceptional teacher, both on the air and in the classroom.

For nearly 38 years, Schaap has been sharing his knowledge with the listeners of Columbia University’s WKCR-FM in New York. His long-running programs include “Traditions in Swing” and “Bird Flight—an all-Charlie Parker show—as well as marathon “birthday broadcasts” for Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Lester Young and others. Since the late ’70s, Schaap has maintained an academic career, teaching jazz at Rutgers, Princeton, Columbia and Juilliard.

      Phil Schaap

Much of Schaap’s educational efforts are now focused on Swing University, a program offered by Jazz at Lincoln Center, the high-profile New York cultural institution for which Wynton Marsalis serves as artistic director. One of the most popular courses is “Let Phil Schaap Make You a Jazz Expert in Eight Easy Lessons.” Schaap also teaches advanced classes on Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. Other faculty members include big band trumpet legend Joe Wilder, pianist-composer Dick Katz and jazz writer Ed Berger. Jazz.com spoke with Schaap recently about Swing U, his formative experiences in jazz, and his passion for preserving jazz history.

What was the impetus behind Swing University, and how did it evolve?

Actually, it’s just a crystallization of what I do, which is I train listeners, and try to enlighten and enlarge the jazz audience. The audience is an essential ingredient, and given the smallish size of the audience and it’s aging out, the replenishing of the audience is probably the most grave concern in jazz at this moment in time, in my estimation. I’m determined to do it, and Swing University is one of the primary avenues.

Where do you see new recruits to the jazz audience coming from?

Anywhere. Any and all are welcome. I obviously am working on younger people because there’s more bang for the buck. If you teach somebody who’s seventy five about jazz, unless they pass it on to somebody relatively speaking quickly, it’s a short-term gain. If you teach somebody who’s 20, it’s got much more potential. The number of people and the whole concept of music appreciation for jazz is really the issue. If you had music appreciation for jazz on any kind of grand scale, you’d probably be able to nurture at least a niche audience for a while.

How do you help younger students, who may be put off by the sound of old recordings, come to terms with swing and bebop?

Hopefully I have some facility, and other educators have some facility to help students grapple with the timelessness of the music. It’s not that we’re trying to get you to listen to arcane music. If recording had become operational in 1514, it would be a non-issue. The issue is an artistic one.

There’s also a sociological aspect. There’s a great deal of Americana involved in the story of jazz, and in fact I believe that post-Civil War to 1950s civil rights history is actually easier or better taught through jazz illustration than almost any other avenue allowed to you.

You’re uniquely qualified to teach Swing U. Growing up in the Hollis neighborhood in Queens, New York, you had jazz musicians such as Roy Eldridge and Lennie Tristano as neighbors. As a young person, what impression did that make on you?

Obviously, it’s my being. I got a no longer repeatable education in jazz because I learned from its originators. I grew up when the prophets were largely still alive and I profited from their being nice to me. My experience is profitable only by my being able to pass it along as it was passed on to me. Basically, I’m your medium. Jo Jones and I used to listen to records in the late afternoons when I was growing up. And he also demonstrated a way of listening to a record, how to study a recording.

Was he also a neighbor?

No, Jo wasn’t a neighbor. I met him when I was five years old when he and my mother chatted backstage at the Randall’s Island jazz festival in 1956 when the Count Basie band played. She implied or maybe said directly to him, “Well, that’s all well and good, but my little boy here knows more about it than I do.” He asked me some tough questions and I got them right, so he volunteered to be my “new baby sitter.”

Your dad, Walter Schaap, was involved in jazz in Paris in the pre-war years.

Yes, he was the translator for Delaunay and Panassié. [Charles Delaunay and Hugues Panassié were members of the Hot Club of France and published some of the first formal jazz criticism.] He was involved with jazz because it was the music of his generation. He got heavily got involved until he—being wiser than me—discovered there was no job in jazz.

Didn’t he know Sidney Bechet?

He knew him well, yes.

Did he know Django?

He was Django’s English teacher.


 Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, comments on the importance of Swing University and Phil Schaap.

What are the main goals of Swing University, and why is it integral to JALC's educational mission?

Education is a very significant aspect at what we do at Jazz at Lincoln Center – we have so many programs for people of all ages: WeBop! for the little kids, Essentially Ellington programs for the high school kids and for the bigger kids, a program called Swing University. Swing U gives adults the chance to learn about the history of this great American art form and to gain an appreciation of its many styles from master teachers who know and have performed the music at a world-class level. For example, you’ve got the legendary and award- winning pianist Dick Katz who teaches a class about Teddy Wilson and Thelonious Monk who Dick actually knew and worked with.

Swing U is a cornerstone of JALC's educational mission since it's an essential and unparalleled way to build an informed and enthusiastic audience for the music. For us to be able to teach the history of the music and then make it come to life in our concert halls and club is an opportunity to integrate all the things we do in a complete and holistic way. It’s been our mission to play, teach and love jazz.

How does Swing U benefit from Phil Schaap's extraordinary knowledge of jazz as well as his unique teaching talents?

What Phil Schaap brings to Swing U is an intimate familiarity with jazz and its makers and an ability to convey that knowledge and love of the music in a way that people find highly engaging. For students, the ability to learn from and talk to a walking encyclopedia of the history and lore of jazz is what makes Phil's classes so unique and so popular.

You are a living repository of jazz lore. How do the stories and anecdotes you’ve collected inform your teaching?

Students like stories better than rote learning. The stories are particularly important in a new field like jazz studies that relies more on pop culture than some more established fields of study. But the stories have to be secondary to the premises of the course you’re teaching.

I’ve been blessed. The reason I know a lot about jazz is that I was trained by the original jazz musicians. And I’ve got to train somebody with my training, and create some form of system, whether it’s writing books or creating at school. It’s got to be converted and now, because otherwise eventually I’ll be just as dead as Jo Jones currently is, and what difference does it make that I had an ice cream cone with him in 1956. It’s gone.

Do you see yourself primarily as a preservationist?

I’m a preservationist in this regard. Jazz music largely emerges in the 20th century. But it doesn’t just belong to the 20th century. I believe it’s an art deserving of continuity because of its quality. Regardless, if it emerged in 1614 or 2006, I would feel the same way. It’s defined by its artistic value.

Lester Young happened to play his best obbligatos and his most frequently recorded obbligatos to classic singing and even less-than classic singing in 1937, ’38, ’39 maybe and a couple of more ones in ’40 and ’41. But the real point is, Lester Young established a very important concept—how to accompany a singer—and illustrates through his recordings a way to do it. And if you’re unaware of the recordings and you’re unlucky enough to have to reinvent the wheel, how are you going to have it again? I have faith that this is of enduring value, and I am trying to be one of the facilitators of it being allowed to endure.


December 06, 2007 · 10 comments

  • 1 Chris A // Jan 01, 2008 at 09:34 PM
    Hoping not to come off as mean-spirited, but Phil could be a real asset to jazz if only he would give music priority over rant on his radio show and stop changing jazz history by making things up. The latter is of real concern to those of us who strive to get out the true story of jazz and its makers.
  • 2 Connie Crothers // Jan 08, 2008 at 07:45 PM
    Phil is great. Up in time to get to the WKCR-FM Columbia U. radio station every weekday by 8:20 to air "Birdflight" for decades without receiving one dollar in pay. And those marathon birthday broadcasts take more than mere time (and a lot of time at that!) The first Charlie Parker birthday broadcast was Phil's baby. He changed jazz because of it. Many musicians may not know this, but there was a time when people didn't talk about Bird, didn't even know about Bird and could not find Charlie Parker records in record stores. Phil brought back Bird, I think pretty much single-handedly, certainly in the beginning. If he did no more than just that, he deserves society's highest accolade. It's not just his formadible erudition. It's not even his unique life experience. It's his insight. Also, it's his heart. Here is one way the great Max Roach said it: "Give this man his own radio station."
  • 3 Chris Albertson // Jan 09, 2008 at 04:53 PM
    He brought back Bird???? From where? There was a time when Parker recordings could not be found in record stores? On what planet? Sorry, but all that is simply untrue, and ludicrous.
  • 4 Beatrice Miller // Jan 21, 2008 at 06:14 PM
    I am an octogenarian and a relative of Tommy Potter, who played bass with the Charlie Parker original quintet in the 40's. I used to listen to Phil Schaap and enjoyed his birthday broadcasts of various jazz artists many years ago until his jazz station changed and I was unable to find him. Last year in 2007 I happened to tune in to WKCR and listened to his Bird Flight broadcasts. I was absolutely thrilled to hear the Charlie Parker performances at the old Royal Roost with Symphony Syd emceeing. It brought back my youth when I was first introduced to this music because of my relationship to Tommy Potter and therefore, anything Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Duke Jordan, related. I have been enjoying Phil Schaap's expertise on the subject of Charlie Parker's innovative Bebop sounds to the world of jazz. Thank you Phil Schaap for your wonderful journey into this jazz genre. Beatrice Miller
  • 5 Michael Steinman // Apr 23, 2008 at 05:17 PM
    In true Solomonic fashion, I have to say everyone's right here. Phil's heart is in the right place; he is trying to keep the music alive and expand the listening base. BUT he talks so much, as if to an audience with limitless appetite for repetition, that it makes tuning into WKCR painful -- an infinite displaying of the self when Lester Young, for instance, should be the subject. And -- having listened to him for thirty-plus years, off and on, I am always surprised by the people he doesn't play, the people he implicitly pretends don't exist. If you asked me (to quote Lorenz Hart) I could write a book.
  • 6 Merrill Robison // Jun 05, 2008 at 10:34 PM
    I am thrilled with the article about Phil in the May 19th New Yorker I have been a fanof Charlei Parker since 1945. I married Al Haig's Sister. Al worked with Dizzie and Charlie Parker plus many other greats at that time. I would love to know what info he has about Al. How can I get ahold of Phil? Merrill Robison
  • 7 Andy Karp // Jul 19, 2008 at 03:49 AM
    Merrill, You can reach Phil at Jazz at Lincoln Center in NYC.
  • 8 Anna Bonetti // Jul 19, 2008 at 08:51 AM
    Absolutely fantastic !!! thank you !
  • 9 Michael Roth // Aug 06, 2008 at 03:22 PM
    I was listening to Phil this morning on WKCR. The segment was called, "Etymology of Ornithology", and like every morning's weird-ass session with Phil, I learned something new and spectacular about Bird's music and the art of jazz. As far as the comments above - Phil is verbose, he may be repetitive and obsessive, but to me, Mr.Schaap is a brilliant critic, orator and writer, passionate teacher of this beautiful art form and always inspirational. Thank you, Phil - from a long time fan.
  • 10 Jazzfan // Jan 28, 2009 at 06:58 PM
    Phil is a genius. Plain and simple. I'm a student in one of his classes at JALC, and I can't wait for each class to start, and I dread each class ending.