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Jazz Master and WKCR Icon Phil Schaap CC’73 Dies at 70

Thursday, September 9, 2021
Phil Schaap CC’73, a giant of the jazz world known for his encyclopedic memory and passion for bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker, died on September 7, 2021. The historian and longtime radio host was recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) earlier this year; over the course of his career he was awarded six Grammys, as a producer and for his liner notes. He was 70 and lived in Queens.

At Columbia, Schaap was instrumental in transforming the student radio station WKCR into a celebrated jazz destination. He debuted on 89.9 FM more than 50 years ago, on February 2, 1970, and never really left; his two longest-running shows, Bird Flight and Traditions in Swing, had been on the air since 1981. Along the way, Schaap helped to establish many of the station’s signature offerings, including music marathons that dedicated 24 hours or more to the oeuvre of a single artist, as well as live performances and musician interviews.

A self-described “jazz activist,” Schaap had an eclectic career outside of WKCR. He managed The Countsmen, featuring veteran members of Count Basie’s Orchestra, from 1972 to 1991. He also programmed live music for the fabled West End bar for much of that same time. 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.

Schaap’s passion for jazz was often described as obsessive, and he delighted in dissecting the minutiae of recordings. Possessed of prodigious recall, he would occasionally tell musicians anecdotes about themselves that they’d forgotten. Dan Morgenstern, director emeritus of the Rutgers Institute for Jazz Studies, once called Schaap a “one-man jazz radio movement.” Renowned trumpeter and jazz educator Wynton Marsalis declared him an “American classic” in a 2008 New Yorker profile of Schaap (written, notably, by editor-in-chief David Remnick).

“Phil Schaap was a person of deep integrity, conviction and purpose,” Marsalis told the College in remembrance. “He was most proud of his involvement with the Columbia student protests of the ’60s as an assertion of each citizen’s responsibility to protect democratic freedoms with a die-hard ferocity. His WKCR program Bird Flight is a New York institution. He believed in thoroughness and in the acceptance of great discomfort to pursue the rights of others.

“Above all, he loved the U.S. Constitution and would say, ‘Let’s not debate the Constitution until you’ve read it.’ He also frequently said, ‘Don’t confuse CliffsNotes with reading the book.’ He was one of a kind and will forever be.”

Schaap was born on April 8, 1951, and grew up steeped in jazz. His father was a jazz scholar and his mother was a librarian and a classically trained pianist; they lived in Hollis, Queens, the so-called bedroom community of jazz. As Schaap told CCT last year, “The pioneers of jazz were still alive then, and I had known them from literally infancy.” He recalled spending time with legendary saxophonist Lester Young as a child; his sometime babysitter was Papa Jo Jones, a former drummer with Count Basie’s big band.

Schaap reflected on his role in shaping WKCR’s jazz identity in the Fall 2020 CCT article, “Radio Days.”

Against a backdrop of jazz’s disappearance from the popular landscape, he was one of the student programmers, in the late 1960s and early ’70’s, who began a deliberate embrace of the genre; the students were inspired by its place in American culture as well as the station’s literal place, adjacent to the historic jazz heart of Harlem. Recalling the fall of 1970, Schaap said, “There was a meeting of the people of KCR. It became clear that we could create something, on our own initiative, that would be broadcast to New York City and the metropolitan region. To use a modern term that people didn’t really use in those days — this was an ‘opportunity.’

“We decided to pursue alternative programming — we were going to present culture, primarily music, that had no commercial following; music that we thought needed to be heard.”

Schaap’s induction as a Jazz Master took place in the spring. He received the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy, which annually goes to a figure whose contribution occurs off the bandstand. In an NEA interview, Schaap discussed his work in building audiences for jazz: “There’s a lot to teach, but all jazz education is performance oriented. Well, who’s going to train the listeners? I’ve spent a lifetime trying. I’m trying to create an audience for the musicians. That’s my job. … I teach listening.”

Schaap is survived by his partner of 17 years, Susan Shaffer.

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