© Copyright ® David Remnick and The New Yorker, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
David Remnick has been editor of The New Yorker since 1998 and a staff writer since 1992. He is the author of “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.”
This was published in the May 19, 2008 edition of The New Yorker and is reprinted here as a memorial to Phil Schaap who died on September 7, 2021 at the age of 70.
Few could match Phil’s knowledge of and passion for the music Charlie “Bird” Parker who he considered to be the source for all things associated with the modern Jazz that evolved during and following World War II.
Or as David Remnick put it: “For Schaap, Bird not only lives; he is the singular genius of mid-century American music,...”
“Every weekday for the past twenty-seven years, a long-in-the-tooth history major named Phil Schaap has hosted a morning program on WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station, called “Bird Flight,” which places a degree of attention on the music of the bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker that is so obsessive, so ardent and detailed, that Schaap frequently sounds like a mad Talmudic scholar who has decided that the laws of humankind reside not in the ancient Babylonian tractates but in alternate takes of “Moose the Mooche” and “Swedish Schnapps.”
For Schaap, Bird not only lives; he is the singular genius of mid-century American music, a dynamo of virtuosity, improvisation, harmony, velocity, and feeling, and no aspect of his brief career is beneath consideration. Schaap’s discursive monologues on a single home recording—say, “the Bob Redcross acetate” of Parker playing in the early nineteen-forties over the Benny Goodman Quartet’s 1937 hit “Avalon”—can go on for an entire program or more, blurring the line between exhaustive and exhausting. There is no getting to the end of Charlie Parker, and sometimes there is no getting to the end of “Bird Flight.” The program is the anchor of WKCR’s daily schedule and begins at eight-twenty. It is supposed to conclude at nine-forty. In the many years that I’ve been listening, I’ve rarely heard it end precisely as scheduled. Generations of Columbia d.j.s whose programs followed Schaap’s have learned to stand clutching an album of the early Baroque or nineteenth-century Austrian yodelling and wait patiently for the final chorus of “I’ll Always Love You Just the Same.”
Schaap’s unapologetic passion for a form of music half a century out of the mainstream is, at least for his listeners, a precious sign of the city’s vitality; here is one obstinate holdout against the encroaching homogeneity of Clear Channel and all the other culprits of American sameness. There is no exaggerating the relentlessness of Schaap’s approach. Not long ago, I listened to him play a recording of “Okiedoke,” a tune that Parker recorded in 1949 with Machito and His Afro-Cuban Orchestra. Schaap, in his pontifical baritone, first provided routine detail on the session and Parker’s interest (via Dizzy Gillespie) in Latin jazz, and then, like a car hitting a patch of black ice, he veered off into a riff of many minutes’ duration on the pronunciation and meaning of the title—of “Okiedoke.” Was it “okey-doke” or was it, rather, “ ‘okey-dokey,’ as it is sometimes articulated”? What meaning did this innocent-seeming entry in the American lexicon have for Bird? And how precisely was the phrase used and understood in the black precincts of Kansas City, where Parker grew up? Declaring a “great interest in this issue,” Schaap then informed us that Arthur Taylor, a drummer of distinction “and a Bird associate,” had “stated that Parker used ‘okeydokey’ as an affirmative and ‘okeydoke’ as a negative.” And yet one of Parker’s ex-wives had averred otherwise, saying that Parker used “okeydoke” and “okeydokey” interchangeably. (At this point, I wondered, not for the first time, where, if anywhere, Schaap was going with this.) Then Schaap introduced into evidence a “rare recording of Bird’s voice,” in which Parker is captured joshing around onstage with a disk jockey of the forties and fifties named Sid Torin, better known as Symphony Sid. After a bit of chatter, Sid instructs Parker to play another number: “Blow, dad, go!”
Okeydoke, says Bird.
Like an assassination buff looping the Zapruder film, Schaap repeated the snippet several times and then concluded that Charlie Parker did not use “okeydoke” as a negative. “This,” Schaap said solemnly, “tends to revise our understanding of the matter.” The matter was evidently unexhausted, however, as he launched a rumination on the cowboy origins of the phrase and the Hopalong Cassidy movies that Parker might well have seen, and perhaps it was at this point that listeners all over the metropolitan area, what few remained, either shut off their radios, grew weirdly fascinated, or called an ambulance on Schaap’s behalf. At last, Schaap moved on to other issues of the Parker discography, which begins in 1940, with an unaccompanied home recording of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Body and Soul,” and ends with two Cole Porter tunes, “Love for Sale” and “I Love Paris,” played three months before his death, in 1955.
Schaap is not a musician, a critic, or, properly speaking, an academic, though he has held teaching positions at Columbia, Princeton, and Juilliard. And yet through “Bird Flight” and a Saturday-evening program he hosts called “Traditions in Swing,” through his live soliloquies and his illustrative recordings, commercial and bootlegged, he has provided an invaluable service to a dwindling art form: in the capital of jazz, he is its most passionate and voluble fan. He is the Bill James of his field, a master of history, hierarchies, personalities, anecdote, relics, dates, and events; but he is also a guardian, for, unlike baseball, jazz and the musicians who play it are endangered. Jazz today is responsible for only around three per cent of music sales in the United States, and what even that small slice contains is highly questionable. Among the current top sellers on Amazon in the jazz category are easy-listening acts like Kenny G and Michael Bublé.
For decades, jazz musicians have joked about Schaap’s adhesive memory, but countless performers have known the feeling that Schaap remembered more about their musical pasts than they did and was always willing to let them in on the forgotten secrets. “Phil is a walking history book about jazz,” Frank Foster, a tenor-sax player for the Basie Orchestra, told me. Wynton Marsalis says that Schaap is “an American classic.”
In the eyes of his critics, Schaap’s attention to detail and authenticity is irritating and extreme. He has won six Grammy Awards for his liner notes and producing efforts, but his encyclopedic sensibility is a matter of taste. When Schaap was put in charge of reissuing Benny Goodman’s landmark 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall for Columbia, he not only included lost cuts and Goodman’s long-winded introductions but also provided prolonged original applause tracks, and even the sounds of the stage crew dragging chairs and music stands across the Carnegie stage to set up for the larger band. His production work on a ten-disk set of Billie Holiday for Verve was similarly inclusive. Schaap wants us to know and hear everything. He seems to believe that the singer’s in-studio musings about what key to sing “Nice Work If You Can Get It” in are as worthy of preservation as a bootleg of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. Reviewing the Holiday set for the Village Voice, Gary Giddins called Schaap “that most obsessive of anal obsessives.”
That’s one way of looking at the matter. Another is that Schaap puts his frenzied memory and his obsessive attention to the arcane in the service of something important: the struggle of memory against forgetting—not just the forgetting of a sublime music but forgetting in general. Schaap is always apologizing, acknowledging his long-windedness, his nudnik tendencies. “The examination may be tedium to you,” he said on the air recently as he ran through the days, between 1940 and 1944, when Parker might have overdubbed Goodman’s “China Boy” in Bob Redcross’s room at the Savoy Hotel in Chicago. (“His home was Room 305.”) Nevertheless, he said, “my bent here is that I want to know when it happened because I believe in listening to the music of a genius chronologically where possible, particularly an improvising artist.” The stringing together of facts is the Schaapian process, a monologuist’s way of painting a picture of “events of the past” happening “in real time.”
“I just hope the concept speaks to some,” he said as his soliloquy unspooled. “It’s two before nine. I’m speaking to you at length. I’m Phil Schaap.”
On a recent Sunday morning, I met Schaap at the WKCR studios, at Broadway and 114th Street. (The station is at 89.9 on the FM dial; it also streams live online at wkcr.org.) Schaap is tall and lumbering and has a thick shock of reddish hair. It was March 9th, Ornette Coleman’s seventy-eighth birthday. Schaap, his meaty arms loaded up with highlights and rarities in the Coleman discography, had come prepared for celebration. Nearly everything in his grasp was from his home collection. He does not consider collecting to be at the center of his life, but allowed that he does own five thousand 78s, ten thousand LPs, five thousand tapes, a few thousand hours of his own interviews with jazz musicians, “and, well, countless CDs.” Schaap, who was married once, and briefly, in the nineties, lives alone in Hollis, Queens, in the house where he grew up. He admits that his collection, and his living quarters, could use some straightening.
“I’ve got to get things in order,” he said. “I’m determined to do it. This is the year. If I didn’t have a memory, I wouldn’t know where anything is.”
The WKCR studios are a couple of blocks south of the main entrance to the Columbia campus, and they tend to look as though there’d been a post-exam party the previous night and someone tried, but not hard, to clean up. The carpets are unvacuumed, the garbage cans stuffed with pizza boxes and crushed cans. Taped to the wall are some long-forgotten schedules and posters of John Coltrane and Charles Mingus. The visitor’s perch—a red Naugahyde armchair—was long ago dubbed the “Dizzy Gillespie chair,” after Gillespie, Parker’s closest collaborator, sat there for hours of conversation with Schaap. Usually, the only person around at WKCR is the student host on the air. Schaap is Class of ’73. He is fifty-seven. “Financially, I live, at best, like a twenty-five-year-old,” he said. He has been broadcasting on WKCR, pro bono, since he was a freshman. The Parker-Tiny Grimes collaboration “Romance Without Finance” could be the theme for his income-tax form.
“Take a seat,” he said, plopping his records down near his microphone. “I gotta get busy.”
Conversation with Schaap in the studio, especially when the program features the breakneck tunes of early jazz or swing music—the soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet playing “The Sheik of Araby” followed by Benny Carter and His Orchestra on “Babalu”—does not allow for Schaapian reflection. “Deadlines every three minutes!” he’ll shout, throwing up his hands. “So many records!”
When he’s working, Schaap concentrates hard, and not merely on his own solos. He takes pride in the art of the segue, paying particular attention to the “sizzling sonic decay” of a last cymbal stroke. (“You won’t hear that again in your lifetime!” he boasted after one particularly felicitous transition.) But with Ornette Coleman, an avatar of extended improvisation, Schaap had more time. The first number he broadcast was “Free Jazz,” Coleman’s 1960 breakthrough, played with two quartets; “Free Jazz” is the Action painting of American music and lasts thirty-seven minutes and three seconds. The sound started to build, the quartets began their dissonant duel. Schaap smiled off into the distance. “Eddie Blackwell’s right foot, man!” he said, then he remembered himself and turned the volume down. “So?” he said.
When I asked Schaap about his childhood, he turned morose, saying, “I may have gotten all my blessings in life up front.” His parents, and nearly all his teachers and the scores of musicians he befriended from school age, were dead. “Everyone that raised me is gone.”
Schaap was born to jazz. His mother, Marjorie, was a librarian, a classically trained pianist, and an insistent bohemian. At Radcliffe, she listened to Louis Armstrong records and smoked a corncob pipe. His father, Walter, was one of a group of jazz-obsessed Columbia undergraduates in the thirties who became professional critics and producers. In 1937, he went to France to study at the Sorbonne and work on an encyclopedia of the French Revolution. While he was there, he collaborated with the leading jazz critics of Paris, Hugues Panassié and Charles Delaunay, on a bilingual edition of their pioneering magazine, Jazz Hot. He helped Django Reinhardt with his English and Dizzy Gillespie with his French. Back in New York, he earned his living making educational filmstrips, in partnership with the jazz photographer William P. Gottlieb.
“They lived for music, and the rest was making a check,” Phil said. “Jazz was always playing in the house.” By the time he was five, Schaap could sing Lester Young’s tenor solo on the Count Basie standard “Taxi War Dance.” When he was six, his babysitter rewarded him for doing her geometry homework by taking him to Triboro Records, in Jamaica, to buy his first 45s: Ruth Brown’s “Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean” and Ray Charles’s “(Night Time Is) The Right Time.” Phil soon started buying discarded jazz 78s by the pound.
In his parents’ living room and then on his own pushy initiative, Schaap met many first-rank jazz musicians and came to consider them his “grandfathers.” Some, like the bassist Milt Hinton and the trumpet player Buck Clayton, lived around Hollis, which had become a bedroom community for musicians. Others came into his life, he said, “as if by magic.”
“In August, 1956, I went to the Randall’s Island Jazz Festival with my mother, and we saw Billie Holliday, Dizzy Gillespie, and a lot of others,” he said. “At one point, we went backstage after the Basie band played. Remember, this is through the hazy recollections of a five-year-old, but I do recall someone trying to hit on my mother, and he asked her about Joe Williams, who was singing then for Basie. To brush the guy off, she said she preferred the earlier singer for the Basie band, Jimmy Rushing, and at that point another man, who turned out to be Basie’s drummer, Jo Jones, said, ‘Madame, I heard that—that was wonderful.’ The two of them got to talking, and Jo asked me if I knew who Prince Robinson was. I said that he was a tenor player for McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. I’d heard a Bluebird 78 that my father owned. Jo Jones was impressed. So he said, ‘Madame, you’ve got yourself a new babysitter.’ ”
Jo Jones was arguably the greatest drummer of the swing era. When Jones was in New York, Walter Schaap would drop off his son at Jones’s apartment and Phil and “Papa Jo” watched cartoons and played records. Inevitably, other musicians came over and took an interest in the kid with the unusual immersion in jazz. “That was when Jo was living at 401 East Sixty-fourth Street,” Schaap said. “Later, he lived at 333 East Fifty-fourth Street and also at the Hotel Markwell, on Forty-ninth Street—lots of musicians lived there. He played a Basie record for me once in order to teach me about Herschel Evans, the great tenor player. It must have been ‘Blue and Sentimental.’ Jo called me ‘Mister.’ ‘Mister, what does that sound like to you?’ I blurted out, ‘It sounds friendly to me.’ And Jo said, ‘That’s right. The first thing to know is, Herschel Evans is your friend.’ ”
In first grade, Schaap pestered his schoolmate Carole Eldridge (and, when that failed, her mother) until he got an introduction to her father, the trumpeter Roy Eldridge. When he was fourteen, he hitched a ride into Manhattan with Basie during the 1966 subway strike. “When I started hearing that Phil was going around meeting all the jazz greats at the age of six, I wondered if it was all fantasy,” his father told the Times not long before he died, two years ago.
The family became accustomed to their son’s range of friendships. Phil once brought home the saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who was known for his ability to play three horns at once and for his heroic capacities at the dinner table. Schaap challenged Kirk to an eating contest. The event came to a halt when they had eaten, in Schaap’s recollection, “one mince pie each baked by Herbie Hall’s wife. You know Herbie? A major clarinet player.”
Schaap’s memory was almost immediately evident. He claims that at the age of two he recited the names of the American Presidents, in order, “while standing on a rocking chair.” He was the kind of kid who knew the names and numbers of all the New York Rangers of the nineteen-sixties and, whether you liked it or not, recited them. He was the kind of kid, too, who wrote to the manager of the Baltimore Orioles to give him advice backed up by statistical evidence. He routinely beat all comers, including his older cousin the late sportswriter Dick Schaap, in the board game Concentration. At school, this was not a quality universally admired. “I guess some kids may have found it annoying,” he allows. But musicians were generally fascinated by young Schaap. Count Basie was one of many who discovered that Schaap knew the facts of his life almost better than he did. “I think that kind of freaked Basie out,” Schaap said. “I’d talk to him about a record date he did in the thirties, and he looked at me, like, ‘Who . . . is . . . this . . . child?’ ”
By the time Schaap was established on the radio, nearly every musician who passed through New York was aware of his mental tape recorder. Twenty-five years ago, the bandleader, pianist, and self-styled space cadet Herman (Sonny) Poole Blount, better known as Sun Ra, swept by a night club and, before having to give a speech at Harvard, “kidnapped” Schaap. Sun Ra claimed that as a young man he had been “transmolecularized” to Saturn, and thereafter he expounded a cosmic philosophy influenced by ancient Egyptian cosmology, Afro-American folklore, and Madame Blavatsky. In order to prepare for his audience in Cambridge, Sun Ra insisted that Schaap fill him in on the details of his existence on Earth. Schaap obliged, telling Sun Ra that, according to his musicians’ union forms, he was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1914. “I could tell him things like what 78s by Fletcher Henderson he was listening to in the thirties and about his time playing piano for the Henderson Orchestra later on,” Schaap said. “He was vague about it all, but what I said made sense to him. I also knew that his favorite flavor of ice cream was the Bananas ’n Strawberry at Baskin-Robbins. It was a hot summer night, so I went up the block and bought him a quart, and we ate sitting in the car.”
The urge to preserve, to collect, to keep time at bay, to hold on to the past is a common one. In this Schaap is kin to Henri Langlois, who tried to find and preserve every known film for the French Cinémathèque, kin to the classical-music fanatics who drift through thrift shops looking for re-releases of Mengelberg and Furtwängler acetates, kin even to Felix Mendelssohn, who helped revive the music of Bach for Germans. He is one with all the bibliophiles, cinephiles, audiophiles, oenophiles, butterfly hunters, fern and flower pressers, stamp and coin collectors, concert tapers, and opera buffs who put an obsession at the center of their lives. “There is no person in America more dedicated to any art form than Phil is to jazz,” his friend Stanley Crouch, who is writing a biography of Charlie Parker, said. “He is the Mr. Memory of jazz, and, as with the Mr. Memory character in ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps,’ the Hitchcock movie, there are those who think he ought to be shot. He can get on your nerves, but, then, you can get on his.”
The day after Ornette Coleman’s birthday was the birthday—the hundred and fifth—of the cornet player Bix Beiderbecke, and Schaap returned to the studios for another marathon of close attention. Along with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, Beiderbecke was a pioneer of jazz as it moved from the all-in polyphony of the earliest bands to a form of ensemble playing that allowed for solo improvisation. The broadcast was a strange time-tunnel transition, from Ornette’s self-invented “harmolodic” experiments to Bix’s short solo flights on “Goose Pimples” and “Three Blind Mice,” but Schaap’s taste is broad. As he queued up his records, he said to me, “I remember March 10, 1985. I did 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. It was some birthday for Bix.” Schaap was unshaved, sleepy, complaining, as usual, of overwork. He felt as if he, too, were a hundred and five.
Schaap is perpetually weary. He works hard: there are the radio shows, the classes he’s teaching now at Juilliard and at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and various producing projects. But it’s not the work, exactly. Schaap carries with him a burden of loss and a disinterest in the contemporary world. He is theatrically, adamantly, old: “I haven’t seen more than six movies since 1972. Three baseball games, maybe five. I think the last novel I read was ‘Invisible Man,’ when I was at Columbia. I haven’t seen any television after the first husband in ‘Bewitched.’ ”He never bothered to see “Bird,” Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker bio-pic. He does not own an iPod. And unless you have a spare afternoon it is best not to ask him what he thinks of digital downloads.
Before long, he was off on a Schaapian riff sparked by the playing of “Wringin’ an’ Twistin’,”recorded, as Schaap said, “eighty-one years ago by OKeh records with Frankie Trumbauer on C-melody saxophone and Eddie Lang on guitar.” Eventually, through the surface scratches, one could hear a voice say, “Yeah, that’s it!” Schaap assured his listeners that there was “no doubt of the voice’s identity.” It was Trumbauer. But that was not enough to cool his curiosity. “Someone is also humming the passage,” he went on. “Is it Eddie Lang or is it Trumbauer? I wonder about it. It’s a test cut on the metal part before the passage begins. And then there’s another voice that you can hear say, ‘Yeah.’ That ‘yeah’ is not Eddie Lang. It could be unidentified. Or it could be Bix’s voice.”
Schaap played the sequence again.
One more time.
Meanwhile, the earth warmed imperceptibly; glaciers plunged into the sea.
“There,” Schaap said. “There! That’s it! September 17, 1927. Not that it’s the most important thing that ever happened to you. But, still. I’d like to know, if possible, what Bix’s speaking voice was like.”
These questions were of no less moment to Schaap than the Confederate maneuvers at Shiloh were to Shelby Foote. Such is the flypaper of his mind and the didactic turn of his personality. When, finally, Schaap played another Beiderbecke record—a twenty-minute string of tunes, to be fair—I asked him what possible interest he could have in the provenance of the ghostly “yeah”s of yesteryear.
“What can I say? I make no apologies. I’m interested,” he said. “Did Bix have a Southern accent? A German accent? A Midwestern accent? Did he sound shy or did he speak with authority? I really do think it’s him, that it’s Bix who says, ‘Yeah.’ ”
Schaap paused and listened to a passage in “Goose Pimples.”
“O.K.,” he said, “it may not be a great mystery. But it’s a mystery, all the same. I do these things that are a turnoff, but it’s my dime. I try very hard to make sure that everyone gets something out of all this. I guess for the first twenty years I was on the radio I was concerned about telling you absolutely everything about every tune. Then, in the nineties, I started concentrating on small issues, one at a time. Like that ‘Okiedoke’ thing. These days, I’m going for a little balance.”
As a broadcaster, Schaap is unpoetic. He does not have the evocative middle-of-the-night gifts of a radio forebear like Jean Shepherd. Or take Jonathan Schwartz, whose specialty for both XM satellite radio and WNYC, in New York, is American singers. Schwartz is as obsessed with Frank Sinatra as Schaap is with Parker, but Schwartz, a brilliant storyteller with a café-society voice as smooth as hot buttered rum, conjures Sinatra’s world: the stage of the Paramount, the bar at Jilly Rizzo’s. Schaap is an empiricist, an old-fashioned historicist. Facts are what he has. His capacity to evoke Charlie Parker’s world—Kansas City in the Pendergast era; the Savoy Ballroom scene uptown; Minton’s, the Three Deuces, and Birdland; Bird’s dissolution and early death—is limited to the accumulation of dates, bare anecdotes, obscure names. The emotional side of his broadcasts comes from his relationships with the musicians. His mental life can be spooky even to him. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think I know more about what Dizzy Gillespie was thinking in 1945 than I do what I was thinking in 1967 or last week.”
The precocious obsessive is a familiar high-school type, particularly among boys, but the object of Schaap’s obsession was a peculiar one among his classmates. “The lonely days were adolescence,” he admitted. “My peer group thought I was out of my mind. But, even then, kids knew basic things about jazz. Teddy Goldstein knew ‘Take the A Train.’ But he kept telling me, ‘Don’t you know what the Beatles are doing? Your world is doomed!’ ”
When he was in his teens, Schaap played the trumpet. He took theory classes at Columbia. “I even got a lesson in high notes from Roy Eldridge,” he said. But his playing, especially his intonation, was mediocre. “I put my trumpet in its case and that was it,” he said. “March 11, 1974.”
Schaap learned to serve the music anyway. In the wake of the Columbia campus strikes in 1968, a group of students set out to get rid of WKCR’s “classroom of the air” gentility. “All of us were listening to the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, but we knew that all of that stuff was available elsewhere,” Schaap told me over a burger near Lincoln Center. “Jimi Hendrix didn’t need WKCR.” And so the station began broadcasting jazz, including multi-day festivals on Albert Ayler (1970), John Coltrane (1971), Charles Mingus (1972), Archie Shepp (1972), and Charlie Parker (1973). During the 1973 Parker festival, Schaap did two forty-eight-hour work shifts, splitting his time between WKCR and his paying job, at the university’s identification-card office. “On Friday, August 31, 1973, I had to get to the I.D.-card office,” he recalled. “The last record I played was ‘Scrapple from the Apple.’ Recorded November 4, 1947. The C take. On Dial. But I think I played the English Spotlite label. Anyway, I entered the back stairwell and the record was still playing in my head”—Schaap interrupted himself to hum Parker’s solo—“and then I was out on a Hundred and Fourteenth Street and I could hear it playing from the buildings, from the open windows. That was a turning point in the station’s history. The insight was that Charlie Parker was at least tolerable to all people who liked jazz. If you idolized King Oliver, you could tolerate Charlie Parker, and if you think jazz begins with John Coltrane playing ‘Ascension’ you can still listen to Bird, too.”
Musicians were beginning to tune in. During a Thelonious Monk festival, one of the d.j.s went on about how Monk created art out of “wrong notes.” Monk, who rarely spoke to anyone, much less a college student, called the station and, on the air, declared, “The piano ain’t got no wrong notes.” In 1979, Schaap was at the center of a Miles Davis festival at a time when Davis was a near-recluse living off Riverside Drive. Davis started calling the station, dozens and dozens of calls—“mad, foul, strange calls,” Schaap recalled. Davis’s inimitable voice, low and sandpapery, was unnerving for Schaap. But then one day—“Friday, July 6, 1979”—his tone changed, and for nearly three hours the two men went over the details of “Agharta,” one of his later albums. Finally, after Schaap had clarified every spelling, every detail, Davis said, “You got it? Good. Now forget it. Play ‘Sketches of Spain’! Right now!”
Just after starting as a d.j., Schaap began organizing musical programs, mainly at the West End, on Broadway at 113th Street. He managed the Countsmen—former sidemen for Count Basie—along with other groups made up of refugees from other big bands, and got them work. Older musicians, such as Jo Jones, Sonny Greer, Sammy Price, Russell Procope, and Earle Warren, who had known Schaap as an eccentric teen-ager now welcomed him as a meal ticket.
“When I was a child, I lived under the illusion that these performers, who put on such an excellent front, dressed to the nines and acting like kings, made real money,” Schaap said. He lost that innocence about forty years ago, when he happened to glance at a check made out to Benny Morton, a trombonist who had been with the Fletcher Henderson and Basie bands. “It was for fifty-eight dollars, and it was for a gig at Carnegie Hall,” Schaap recalled. Jazz reached its commercial peak in the mid-nineteen-forties, but by 1950 the ballrooms had closed down. The postwar middle class no longer went out dancing; they were watching television and listening to records at home. The clubs on Fifty-second Street—the Onyx, the Famous Door, the Three Deuces—disappeared. Eventually, rock and roll displaced jazz as America’s popular music. World-class musicians were scrounging for work. Performers who had enjoyed steady employment took second jobs as messengers on Wall Street, bus drivers, and bank guards. For comradeship, they were hanging out at the Chock Full o’ Nuts at Fiftieth and Broadway and at a few bars around town.
“Phil took these guys out of the Chock Full o’ Nuts and put them on the stage of the West End,” Loren Schoenberg, the executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, told me. “So for the young people who idolized them, and guys who’d never heard of them, Phil brought them to us.” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, an early rhythm-and-blues star, used to call Phil Schaap’s mother at home and beg her to get her son to do for him what he’d done for the horn players of the Basie band.
As “Bird Flight” became a fixture of the jazz world, Schaap began to get jobs teaching, but, even with the rise of academic jazz programs, no one has offered him a professorship. Some of his students—including Ben Ratliff, who is now the main jazz critic for the Times, and Jerome Jennings, a drummer for, among others, Sonny Rollins—swear by Schaap as a teacher, but some complain that his displays of memory can be tiresome and aimed at underscoring his students’ cluelessness. This spring, I took Schaap’s Charlie Parker course at Swing University, the educational wing of Jazz at Lincoln Center, and could see both sides. In four two-hour evening sessions, he provided an incisive, moving narrative of Parker’s incandescent career, but he could also be oppressive, not least with his pointless occasional class “surveys.” “Who knows ‘Yardbird Suite’?” he’d ask. Then, moving from desk to desk, he’d poll the students, embarrassing those honest enough to confess their ignorance.
As a teacher, Schaap is less concerned about the tender sensibilities of his students than with developing knowledgeable and passionate listeners. “The school system is creating six thousand unemployable musicians a year—from the Berklee College of Music, Rutgers, Mannes, Manhattan, Juilliard, plus all the high schools,” he said. “There are more and more musicians, and no gigs, no one to listen. So what happens to these kids? They work their way back to the educational system and help create more unemployable musicians. My rant is this: I’m not trying to teach you to play the alto sax. No. I’m trying to get you to learn how to listen to Charlie Parker. Louis Armstrong is the greatest musician of the twentieth century. But name twenty musicians today who really listen to Louis Armstrong. Go ahead: I’ll give you a week.”
There are many excellent young (and youngish) jazz musicians around, including the pianist Jason Moran and the sax player Joshua Redman, to say nothing of the extended family of players around Wynton Marsalis. In February, Herbie Hancock won an Album of the Year Grammy for his arrangements of Joni Mitchell songs. But, generally, a hit album in jazz means sales of ten thousand. Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, and a few other giants of an earlier time still roam the earth, but even they cannot reliably sell out a major hall. Coleman’s concert at Town Hall in March was as thrilling a musical event as has taken place this year in New York. The theatre was at least a quarter empty.
“In the fall of 1976, when Woody Herman was rehearsing for a forty-year-anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall, I was invited to watch,” Schaap told me. “A saxophonist wasn’t paying attention, and at one point Woody Herman crept up on him, put his face next to the musician’s, and said, ‘Son, what do you want to be?’ And the guy said, ‘I want to be the next Stan Getz.’ And Woody Herman said, ‘Son, there’s not gonna be another Stan Getz!’ In other words, people like Stan Getz and Woody Herman were pop stars! That’s not going to happen again.”
In the spring of 1947, around the same time that Charlie Parker was playing the Hi-De-Ho club, in Los Angeles, a young Bedouin herding goats along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea discovered several tall clay jars that contained manuscripts written in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic. Wrapped in linen, the manuscripts were part of a much larger cache of ancient texts, which came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“For decades, there were rumors that jazz had its own Dead Sea Scrolls,” Schaap told me more than once. “One was a cylinder recording of Buddy Bolden”—the New Orleans cornettist and early jazz pioneer who was committed to a mental institution before the rise of 78s. “But this will probably never be found. The second, of course, is called ‘the Benedetti recordings.’ ”
All of Schaap’s listeners have grown accustomed to his close attention to the “crucial” obscurities of the Parker discography: “the unaccompanied 1940 alto recording in Kansas City,” “the paper disk of ‘Cherokee,’ ” “the Wichita transcriptions,” and “the little-known Clyde Bernhardt glass-based acetate demo disks.” These recordings can be revelatory, but they also try the patience. Recently on “Bird Flight,” Schaap showcased a home recording of Parker in February, 1943—important because he was playing tenor saxophone, not his customary alto—and the sound was so bad that you couldn’t quite tell if you were hearing “Sweet Georgia Brown” or radio waves from the surface of the planet Uranus.
The Benedetti recordings, however, occupy a privileged place not only in Schaap’s mental Bird cage but also in musical history. And Schaap helped bring them out of their urns.
For decades, stories circulated in the jazz world that Dean Benedetti, a saxophonist of modest distinction, upon hearing Parker play in the mid-forties, threw his own horn into the sea and pledged himself to follow Parker everywhere he went, recording his hero’s performances. Benedetti was said to have obtained, through Army connections, a Nazi-era German wire recorder, and he carried out his mission at clubs, concert halls, and private apartments all over the world. In the meantime, he was rumored to be a drug dealer who supplied Bird, a longtime addict, with heroin. Many of the legends of Benedetti’s devotions came from “Bird Lives!,” an entertaining but iffy biography published in 1973 by a Los Angeles-based record producer, Ross Russell. Through the decades, no recordings surfaced. Ornithologists could not help but wonder: Had they been lost? Had they sunk, as rumored, along with a freighter in the Atlantic? Eventually, only the most committed, with their collections of 78s and back issues of Down Beat, spoke much of the matter. Like “the Bolden cylinder,” the Benedetti recordings seemed to have taken their eternal rest in the watery grave of jazz legend.
But then, in 1988, Benedetti’s surviving brother, Rigoletto (Rick), got in touch with Mosaic, a small jazz outfit in Stamford, Connecticut, that specializes in reissues from the vaults of the major labels. It was true, Rick Benedetti informed the owner, Michael Cuscuna: there really were recordings. Was Mosaic interested?
“The real backstory was incredible,” Cuscuna told me.
On July 29, 1946, Parker was in desperate shape: depressed, drinking, strung out, broke, and lonely in Los Angeles, he had struggled through an afternoon recording session with the trumpeter Howard McGhee. His recording that day of “Lover Man” was a technical mess—Parker was barely able to make it through the song—but it is a painful howl, as devastating to hear as Billie Holiday’s last sessions. That night, at the Civic Hotel, Parker twice wandered into the lobby naked. Later on, he fell asleep while smoking, setting his mattress on fire. The police arrested him and a judge had him committed to the Camarillo State Hospital, a psychiatric facility. When he was released, six months later, he was off heroin for the first time since he was a teen-ager in Kansas City. His musician friends threw a jam-session party for him on February 1, 1947, at the home of a trumpet player named Chuck Copely. One of the guests was a handsome young man—pencil mustache, dark eyes, hipster clothes—named Dean Benedetti.
Benedetti went out and bought a Wells-Gardner 78-r.p.m. portable disk-cutter at Sears, Roebuck and, in March, recorded Parker playing with Howard McGhee’s band at the Hi-De-Ho. (The historical bonus here is that Parker plays tunes from McGhee’s repertory, and so we hear him soloing, for the first and last time, on Gus Arnheim’s “Sweet and Lovely” and Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “September in the Rain.”) Later that year, in New York, Parker was back on drugs but still at the height of his musical powers. He formed what is now considered his “golden-era” quintet: Parker on alto sax, the twenty-one-year-old Miles Davis on trumpet, Max Roach on drums, Duke Jordan on piano, and Tommy Potter on bass. Benedetti recorded the quintet on March 31, 1948, at the Three Deuces, on Fifty-second Street, Parker’s primary base of operations. By this time, Benedetti was using heroin and had no means of support; when the management realized that he didn’t plan to spend any money, it provided him with what Schaap would call “the ultimate New York discourtesy”—it threw him out. In Schaap’s terms, it is a “tragedy” that Benedetti was unable to record the rest of Parker’s nights at the Three Deuces. And it is true that, of all the Benedetti recordings, these are the most significant. On “Dizzy Atmosphere,” Parker plays with dangerous abandon, a runaway truck speeding down the highway into oncoming traffic, never crashing; and even the twenty-six-second passage from the ballad “My Old Flame” is memorable, a glimpse of human longing in sound.
Finally, in July, 1948, Benedetti recorded the Parker quintet for six nights at the Onyx, a rival club on Fifty-second Street. The sound from the Onyx sessions is the worst of all, mainly because Benedetti was forced by the club’s management to place his microphone near Max Roach’s drum kit. The effect is often like trying to hear a lullaby in a thunderstorm.
The recordings are not for casual listeners. Disks and tape were expensive commodities, and to save money Benedetti usually turned on the machine only when Parker was soloing. Many recordings are no more than a minute long. One morsel lasts precisely three seconds. There are no fewer than nineteen versions of “52nd St. Theme.” But to the aficionado this is like complaining that the Dead Sea Scrolls were torn and discolored. One hears Parker on Coleman Hawkins tunes like “Bean Soup” and quoting everything from “In a Country Garden” to a bit from H. Klosé’s “25 Daily Exercises for Saxophone.”
Cuscuna said that, faced with stacks of cracking forty-year-old tapes and ten-inch acetate disks, he realized that “only Phil Schaap was brilliant enough—and insane enough—to do the job.”
Schaap took the materials to the apartment where he was living at the time—a record-and-disk-strewn place in Chelsea—and “just stared” at them for “many, many hours.” He felt an enormous sense of responsibility. “This increased the volume of live improvisations of a great artist by a third,” he told me one morning after signing off from “Bird Flight.” “Imagine if someone were to find a third more Bach, a third more Shakespeare plays, a third more prime Picasso.”
When Schaap first tried to play a tape, it snapped. He tried hand-spinning the tape. It broke again. He realized that the tapes were backed with paper, not plastic. The paper had dried out, making the tape extremely fragile. The solution, Schaap decided, was to secure the most delicate spots with Wite-Out. And so he went through every inch of the Benedetti tapes—all eight miles—and did the job, the tape in his left hand, a tiny Wite-Out brush in his right.
“I guess the only thing I’ve ever done in jazz that was harder was when we did an eleven-day Louis Armstrong festival on WKCR, in July, 1980,” he said. Schaap worked for more than two years on the Benedetti project. He and Cuscuna once figured out his remuneration. “I think it was approximately .0003 cents an hour,” Schaap said. “But who’s complaining?”
Mosaic has so far sold five thousand copies of “The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker.”
“That’s triple platinum for us,” Cuscuna said.
For Schaap, the fascinations and mysteries of the discography are unending, even though Parker’s career lasted less than fifteen years. Parker died on March 12, 1955, at the Stanhope Hotel, while watching jugglers on Tommy Dorsey’s television variety show. A doctor who examined the body estimated that Parker was in his mid-fifties. He was thirty-four.
On Easter Sunday, I met Schaap in the lobby of the Kateri Residence, a nursing home on Riverside Drive. He was there to visit one of the last of “the grandfathers who helped raise him.”
We went to the twelfth floor and headed for a small room at the end of the hall. From the doorway, we could see a round old man slumped in a wheelchair, sleeping, a woollen scarf over his shoulders and a blanket on his lap. It was Lawrence Lucie. “I met Larry fifty-one years ago,” Schaap said. He was six. Lucie played guitar for almost anyone worth playing for: from Jelly Roll Morton to Joe Turner. He played in the big bands of Fletcher Henderson, Benny Goodman, Lucky Millinder, Duke Ellington, and Benny Carter. When Coleman Hawkins recorded “Body and Soul,” Lucie was in the band. Lucie not only played with Louis Armstrong; he was the best man at Armstrong’s wedding. He is the last person alive to have played with Ellington at the Cotton Club. Lucie’s father was a barber in Emporia, Virginia; he was also a musician, and Lawrence joined his father’s band as a banjo player when he was eight. Now he is a hundred years old. No one alive is as intimately connected to the origins of jazz music as Lucie. His last gig, which he quit only a couple of years ago, was playing standards at Arturo’s, a coal-oven-pizza joint on Houston Street in the Village.
“Larry, it’s me, Phil.”
Schaap gently shook the old man’s shoulder.
Lucie opened his eyes and, very slowly, looked up at his visitor. As he brought Schaap into focus, he smiled and his eyes brightened.
“Phil! How nice!”
Not many people are still around to visit. A grandnephew is the closest relative that Schaap knows of, and he lives in California. Schaap and Lucie were clearly thrilled to see each other. Nearly all of Schaap’s jazz grandfathers—Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, Buck Clayton, Doc Cheatham, Max Roach—are gone. Lucie had not lost his elegance. Although he had no reason to expect a visit, he was wearing a tie, a smart silk one with an abstract blue-and-red pattern. On the other side of his bed was a guitar in a battered case and, above it, a poster of the Lucy Luciennaires, a quartet that featured his wife, the singer Nora Lee King, who died eleven years ago. In the seventies and eighties, Lucie and King used to perform weekly on a Manhattan public-access cable channel.
Lucie, who celebrated his centennial in December, was glad to hear Schaap talk about his days with Fletcher Henderson. And when Schaap asked him if he remembered the name of the song that Benny Carter opened with at the Apollo seventy-four years ago, Lucie said, “I know, Phil, but do you?”
“Sure, it was ‘I May Be Wrong (But I Think You’re Wonderful).’ ”
“That’s right.” Both men laughed.
“And you played the first notes,” Schaap said. Indeed, they were the first notes played in the Apollo when, in 1934, the theatre opened under that name and began admitting African-American audiences.
Schaap wheeled Lucie to the elevator and up to a solarium on the penthouse floor, where they could look out over the Hudson River and reminisce, a conversation that was more a matter of Schaap recalling highlights of Lucie’s career and Lucie saying, over and over, “Phil Schaap knows me better than I know me. Phil Schaap knows his jazz.”
Finally, Lucie asked to go down to the fifteenth floor, where a volunteer was playing piano and singing show tunes.
“You coax the blues right out of my heart.”
Arrayed in front of the piano were fifty or sixty residents, some of them nearly as old as Lucie and many a great deal less healthy. A nurse passed out Easter cookies. Lawrence Lucie had heard better music in his time, but he was happy to stay and listen. “There’s always something going on here,” he said dryly. “The action never stops.”
Schaap bent over and told his friend that he was off.
“What a delight,” Lucie said. “It’s always so good to see you.”
“I’ll be back soon,” Schaap said. “You know I will.”