David Remnick’s profile of the inimitable radio announcer on WKCR, Phil Schaap, is this week’s New Yorker, is a throwback to the magazine’s golden era, when journalists like A.J. Leibling and Joseph Mitchell filled its pages with accounts of New York City’s compulsive obsessives, living out their enthusiasms at whatever cost to their pocketbooks or conventional notions of respectability. Their point, ultimately, was not just to entertain with stories of colorful characters, but to honor their passions and their commitments, and recognize that it through people who live out their passions, whatever the consequences, that the world is changed. What Mahatma Gandhi is to non-violent resistance, Phil Schapp is to jazz.
I have been listening to Phil Schaap for over a quarter century, introduced to him by my late brother, Freddy. When I moved up to Rochester I couldn’t listen until the internet really got working, and then after September 11, when WKCR lost its transmitter, I couldn’t listen for a few years, but everything is working now, and I find myself listening to Phil a few times a week. Of course the question is why. Schaap is legendary for his knowledge of jazz history, which can slide into the minutest of trivia on record dates, participants, birthdates, and ensembles, all recounted from memory, and all spun out at often excruciating length. Schaap’s airbreaks, when he can talk for over a hour in a relentlessly didactic style, are what make his legendary. The article by Remnick compares Schaap to baseball writer Bill James, but I don’t think the comparison is apt—James’s is relentlessly thesis driven, stolen bases are overrated, on base percentage is underrated, etc., and he is always marshalling his facts to make an argument. Schaap’s overly long, incredibly repetitive and desultory explanations often seem to have nothing to do with the records he eventually plays, or no point at all, and I often listen to him out of grim fascinating of listening to an obsessive, making every possible connection or point, like a two-page footnote in the dullest scholarly style imaginable, or like an eager graduate student who has to tell you everything he or she knows on the matter at hand.
But except for the fact that I have a better sense than Phil Schaap does on when I am boring people, I have the same instincts. (I have edited four or five encyclopedias, after all.) And I learned a great deal from listening to Phil, both about jazz history, and how to listen to jazz. But like most listeners, I graduated from Phil, wanting only to listen to the music, and not his interminable blather. But I keep coming back. (The test is, when you turn him on, do you hear music or talk. At least 75% of the time, its talk.) Why? He is a historian. Most of his stories come from oral histories conducted over the years, generally on the radio, with musicians who were present at the events in question. And he plays, when he gets around it, great music, and he has single handedly done much to keep the music alive, both on the radio and in his reissue of classic recordings, which generally have the Schaapian touch, like his set of Charlie Parker on Verve that has 11, I think, consecutive takes on Bird on “Old Folks.”
He has become, in recent years, a somewhat melancholy figure on the air. The music he loves the best, jazz through about 1955 or so, is ever more irretrievably in the past, and the musicians who made the music are dying fast, and he has taken to endless laments on the fallen stature and status of jazz. I have wondered about the limitations in his canon, his endless playing of his favorites at the expense of other equally worthy figures; why Charlie Parker and not Bud Powell? Or Clifford Brown and not Miles Davis, Bix Beiderbecke and not Django Reinhardt? But you can’t get too angry at someone whose greatest loves are Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and the first Basie band. And you can’t even really get angry at someone, when I asked him a few years ago, for help in identifying a pseudonymous black jazz musician who was gigging in Bombay in 1936, said he would help if he was paid. Thanks, Phil. But I figured out myself, and he has always led a somewhat solitary, hand to mouth existence, as befitting a grand obsessive, and probably needed the money.
Stanley Crouch is quoted in Remnick’s piece as saying “there is no person in America more dedicated to any art form than Phil is to jazz.” I think that’s right, and it is finally his passion that keeps me listening (up to a point.) The first job of a historian is not to interpret the past, but to save it from oblivion, and Phil has saved much vital music and vital recollections from time’s wrecking ball, has introduced generations of wannabees to the arcana of jazz discography, and has been a unique cultural treasure for New York City. Just ramble on Phil, ramble, and I will listen until the butcher cuts one of us down