Phil Schaap whose encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history with sidebar insight into musicians and their music led him to become a remarkable broadcaster, historian, archivist, educator and record producer, earning him six Grammy Awards in various categories died Sept. 7, at a hospital in Manhattan. He was 70.
His partner of 17 years, Susan Shaffer, said the cause was cancer, which had been a four-year struggle.
In the spring of this year Schaap was the recipient of the 2021 National Endowment for the Arts 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 art form.”
As a record reissue producer, he won six Grammy Awards. Three of the awards were for liner notes for multi-CD sets released in the 1990s: “Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve,” “The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve, 1945-1959” and “Miles Davis & Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings.” 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).
As a student at Columbia University Schaap worked at the college’s radio station WKCR-FM, in 1970. He managed to transform the little station into one of the most celebrated stations in jazz. After his graduation in 1974 he remained at the station for over 50 years. His two longest-running shows, “Bird Flight” (dedicated to the music of alto saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker) and “Traditions in Swing,” emerged in 1981. Some said Schaap’s daily morning show offered too many details, describing Parker’s lunch at a recording session on a hot Tuesday. It was Schaap’s enthusiasm and pleasant compulsiveness with Parker. He had an incredible memory, total recall. He would fill in gaps for musicians, who couldn’t remember details of certain gigs or recording sessions. When musicians made fun of his crazy memory, he laughed along understanding he had a very unique gift.
“There isn’t anyone in the country who knows more about this music than he [does],” Max Roach told The New York Times in 2001. “He knows more about us than we know about ourselves.”
He helped to establish the station’s signature additions such as music marathons that dedicated 24 hours or more to a single musician, as well as live performances and musician interviews (an accumulation of 3,000 or more). Schaap played music from his own extensive record collection and played whatever he wanted. He made his on impromptu playlist on a daily basis. Aside from WKCR, he also hosted jazz programs on WNYC and WBGO in Newark, N.J.
Saxophonist and fellow NEA Jazz Master Charles Lloyd found Schaap’s broadcasts in the early ’90s and was impressed with his perceptiveness. “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.”
Schaap was a jazz activist whose commitment led him to managing The Countsmen, featuring veteran members of Count Basie’s Orchestra, along with musicians from other big bands. He was able to get many of them work at the West End Bar near Columbia’s campus where he programmed live music. David Remnick wrote in a 2008 profile for The New Yorker. “Older musicians, such as Jo Jones, Sonny Greer, Sammy Price, Russell Procope, and Earle Warren, who had known Schaap as an eccentric teenager now welcomed him as a meal ticket.” In addition, he was a curator at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where he created the educational program Swing University; taught at Columbia, Princeton and Juilliard; and was an audio restoration specialist. And for fun he enjoyed swing-dancing.
Philip van Noorden Schaap was born in Queens on April 8, 1951. He was raised in the Hollis community, an only child, he was raised by jazz-loving parents. His father was Walter Schaap, an early jazz historian and discographer. His mother, Marjorie, worked as a librarian and was a classically trained pianist.
Backstage with his mother at Randall’s Island Jazz Festival in August 1956, he met Basie’s long-time drummer, Jo Jones, who on occasion would babysit for him. By age six he was collecting records and having listening conversations with Jones.
As an adolescent on his own accord, he introduced himself to such artists as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Dizzy Gillespie. During that period there were a host of famous jazz musicians living in Hollis, Queens. During the 1966 New York transit strike, Schaap hitchhiked from Queens to Manhattan with his neighbor, Count Basie.
According to Shaffer, Schaap’s collection will be given to Vanderbilt University for educational, research and exhibition purposes, in partnership with the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville. His radio programs and interviews are archived online at philschaapjazz.com, where Shaffer says she hopes they will run “forever.”
Schaap was survived by his partner, Susan Shaffer.