Radio is one of those elusive, magical places where you can turn what you love into what you do for a living.
Phil Schaap spent his life spreading the gospel of the music he loved, which was jazz, and while he didn’t make his living from radio, radio was one of his most valuable and enduring pulpits.
Schaap, who died of cancer Tuesday at the age of 70, grew up in a jazz-loving household in Queens and spent his life in the deep end of the jazz pool.
He taught jazz studies at Columbia, Princeton, Manhattan School of Music, Juilliard and Rutgers, among other places. He lectured for Jazz at Lincoln Center.
He wrote liner notes for dozens of jazz albums — and “liner notes” for Schaap didn’t mean a brief overview. It was a graduate lecture, mercifully couched in terms that mortals could understand. He won three Grammy awards for those notes, one for a Charlie Parker set, one for a Billie Holiday set and one for a Miles Davis/Gil Evans record.
He produced jazz records and managed jazz ensembles. For a quarter century after he graduated from Columbia, he produced a series of concerts, the West End series, that often brought back major jazz artists who had been crowded out of the contemporary scene.
That part of the series reflected Schaap’s passion for musical history. Like devotees of many musical styles, he was frustrated that younger listeners often paid attention only to what they personally remembered.
Schaap hailed from the “y’know, this came from somewhere” school, and while that message permeated his teaching, writing and lecturing, it was nowhere stronger than on the radio, where he could drop a needle on what he was talking about.
Schaap’s radio days started on Columbia’s WKCR when he was an undergraduate, and they never stopped. He was hosting the daily morning show Bird Flight on WKCR up to his death, and WKCR says it plans to continue rerunning them.
Where his jazz sermons often kicked into their highest gear, though, was during WKCR’s birthday salutes, where several times a year the station devotes an entire day to the anniversary of a jazz icon on the level of a Holiday, Parker or Louis Armstrong.
Those extended features let Schaap remind everyone where the artists came from, and he spared no detail.
If he were introducing one of Armstrong’s Hot Five sessions from 1925, he might warm up with something like “It was a cloudy morning, 35% chance of showers. Armstrong woke up at 9:53 and made breakfast. Two eggs, over easy. He put the dishes in the sink, washing them lightly and brushed his teeth, using a brush with a medium bristle. He picked out a brown suit with a white bow tie, buffed his shoes with a tissue from his dresser and took a subway to the studio, boarding at 11:08 and arriving at 11:42. He said hello to the desk attendant, noting the increase in the price of cigars at the corner newsstand. He decided his shoes still needed attention before the session began, so he walked down two flights of stairs to the shoeshine stand, where he took the third stool. He paid for the shine with a Mercury dime and left two Indian head pennies for a tip. . . .”
That’s not verbatim, but it’s only a slight exaggeration, and the details multiplied after he got to the music. When it came to the lives and works of the artists he admired, Schaap was SpongePhil, absorbing and never forgetting a detail.
Toward that end, he met and talked with as many musicians as possible, elevating himself from fan to friend.
In his teaching and on his radio shows, he tried to convey as much as of what he had learned as possible, a determination that caused some radio listeners to shake their heads. He acknowledged in interviews that he was capable of doing a 15-minute introduction to a five-minute piece of music, but he did not apologize for providing information that he felt the academic and even the music worlds had too often shamefully ignored.
Given that premise, it’s hardly surprising that his radio career played out primarily on non-commercial stations: WKCR, WNYC in New York and WBGO in Newark. He went where he could play jazz, and not the kind of lite jazz — think Kenny G — that occasionally gets a foothold on commercial stations.
No, he saw radio as a medium where he could illustrate precisely how and where how a Charlie Parker alto sax solo differed from a John Coltrane alto sax solo. He had done his job if his listeners came away wanting to hear the music, not just understand its historical significance.
Toward that end, radio was a tool he admired and used.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Schaap was hosting “Bird Flight” on WKCR when New York stopped.
“I was playing a particularly rare fielding recording that Parker made in Chicago on Feb. 28, 1943,” Schaap said. “Our power went out at 9:03 a.m. and we went off the air at 9:04.”
What happened, of course, is that WKCR’s transmitter, like those of many New York radio stations, was located on top of the World Trade Center and went down with the towers.
Schaap spent the rest of Sept. 11 at WKCR’s studio, using his electronic and tech skills to find some way to get WKCR back on the air. Not for his show, he said, but because radio was going to be a vital medium for many people in the New York area on that day and in its aftermath.
He talked about the technical challenge of wiring up any kind of improvised transmitter, and the broader issue of seeking a waiver from the FCC to utilize a temporary transmitter from another site.
“I know it’s a small thing in the greater scheme,” he said, but it was something he could do and radio could do on a day when everyone wanted to do something.
Phil Schaap never spoke to millions. He didn’t expect to. He identified what he loved and why it was worth loving. That’s a lot of something.