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Phil Schaap (1951-2021)


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Phil Schaap, a jazz know-it-all, nudnik and tireless fact finder who put all of those skills to work to become one of radio's finest and most passionate jazz authorities, detectives and educators, died on September 7. He was 70. [Photo above of Phil Schaap at WKCR in 1991 by John Abbott, courtesy of John Abbott]

Phil was best known in the New York City area for his daily weekday Bird Flight shows that came on before you woke up and ended after you left for work. Often chided for dwelling on whether Charlie Parker had a cold on a particular recording session or for cutting off famous jazz guests' stories to insert what tie Parker had on that night or who coughed in the club audience, Phil had an uncanny ability to pull you in. Once you stopped shouting “Who cares? Move on!" at the radio, you soon found yourself unable to withdraw as Phil put on the 15th take of the same song.

Like all great historians who also are superb raconteurs, Phil could trap you in his web and transform you into an obsessive-compulsive Charlie Parker listener. Phil's Bird Flight went on the air 40 years ago determined to prove that jazz fans who thought they were worthy first had to know Parker's music and biography inside and out. Phil gladly provided that service. But his jazz fixation went way beyond Parker. Phil wrote Grammy-winning liner notes and hosted marathon birthday broadcasts on WKCR-FM of all jazz artists with the same command, knowledge and relish.

When I interviewed Phil in 2010 on Charlie Parker, the five parts I devoted to our conversation seemed like a sneeze. I knew Phil from my interactions with him when I was studying for my masters at Columbia University and visited The West End near campus. Phil seemed to live there, announcing and producing jazz performances night after night. Phil could come off pompous to the uninitiated, but he was really a pussy cat provided you loved the music.

I remember one night coming to the West End to hear guitarist Emily Remler. After her set, the three of us sat down and spent 20 minutes talking, with Phil leaving the table for a period. When it came to jazz, he wasn't proprietary. The more you knew, the more he succeeded in making you a jazz enthusiast. I wish I had gotten to know Phil better, but he struck me as the kind of person no one ever really got to know. He was already occupied, by the music.

Here are all five parts of my Charlie Parker interview with Phil combined into one as a tribute to his contribution and legacy. I just hope WKCR-FM has the tapes to all of his shows and someone assembles them into a Parker Recording by Recording instruction guide:

JazzWax: What’s the major artistic achievement of Parker’s Ko-Ko in 1945?

Phil Schaap: For Charlie Parker, he is in the studio for his first session as a leader. He also is mapping out for you precisely what came to him while playing over Cherokee's chord changes. It’s a eureka moment for him in terms of where jazz might be going. He’s returning to a piece that was so essential to his development. Through the music, Parker is returning to Cherokee and telling you how the new music—bebop—came to him.

JW: What do you mean by “returning to Cherokee?"

PS: At the time in November 1945, very few people would have been aware that Bird had played Cherokee regularly as far back as 1939. They also wouldn't know that it’s through this song that Parker saw the door open for what would become bebop. Ko-Ko is the pinnacle of what this new form of expression is all about.

JW: How so?

PS: Parker is being explicit and inventive about something listeners understood—the reinvention of a popular standard. He is specifically saying through his playing that Ko-Ko is the same as Cherokee but also quite different. During the recording, he also hits the three emphasis points of bebop.

JW: What are they?

PS: The exhibition of unbelievable amounts of technique almost casually displayed. The incredible wisdom in deep harmony that is effectively displayed through improvisation. And the unleashing of a new rhythmic arc through phrasing—meaning the music now has a completely different feel and sound than swing, which preceded it. The last of the three emphasis points—the rhythmic arc and phrasing— actually is bebop's biggest innovation.

JW: Yet there’s also enormous urgency and a mysterious feel to what Parker plays on the intro and outro to Ko-Ko.

PS: Not as much as you think. Yes, there's a radical quality to Ko-Ko that comes from the new rhythmic line. And the song’s initial minor key is telling you the music has a different flavor. But that’s not what makes this song special. That’s just the employing of a fetching component of music’s making. The rhythmic line—independent of key or anything else—is an incredibly new way of making music. It’s the definitive element of breakthrough, and it’s why virtually anyone even casually familiar with jazz can hear that something new is going on in the music.

JW: Then what is Parker saying here?

PS: The music we hear on the record is more important than any hidden meaning Parker may have had. What’s most interesting about this session, in some ways, is that Bird had no intention of recording Ko-Ko at the outset.

JW: What do you mean?

PS: This was his first session as a leader, which meant he was responsible for the song choices and choosing the band members. He originally planned to record two blues—Now’s the Time and Billie's Bounce, both in F concert—as well as a ballad based on Embraceable You and a tune based on I Got Rhythm’s chord changes, which we now know as Anthropology.

JW: What changed his mind?

PS: On a break early in the recording session, Parker went downstairs to pick up his instrument from the repair shop. When he returned, before recording again, he tested the repair by playing the most ambitious piece in his repertoire in terms of technique—Cherokee.

JW: How did this exercise become a recorded song?

PS: Oddly enough, Savoy owner Herman Lubinsky, who for the most part was non-artistically oriented, heard what Parker was doing and said, “Hey, man, that’s what we should record!” Bird agreed and the group recorded Warming Up a Riff and Ko-Ko, both of which were based on Cherokee. They scrapped the I Got Rhythm tune and dropped Embraceable You at the end to make room for Ko-Ko.

JW: Why cut one of the songs?

PS: According to the rules of the musicians’ union at the time, you could only record four tracks in one session. This rule was put in place to keep record companies from overworking musicians. When Parker and the musicians pick up Ko-Ko, Dizzy had to play the trumpet part. Miles wasn’t able to play that difficult passage at the beginning of the song in 1945.

JW: What happens at the session?

PS: The group recorded three takes of Billie’s Bounce. Then they took a break to let Bird go to the repair shop to pick up his alto saxophone. When he comes back, they record Warming Up a Riff, which is based on Cherokee. They also record takes No. 4 and 5 of Billie’s Bounce, followed by four takes of Now’s the Time and three takes of Thriving From a Riff. There’s only take of Embraceable You, known as Meandering. But eventually the last song is dropped for Ko-Ko, the fifth title recorded that day.

JW: Is Ko-Ko an extension of anything the group had played earlier?

PS: Yes, Ko-Ko actually is rooted in the astounding display of harmony Parker executed earlier on Warming Up a Riff, on which he takes a three chorus solo.

JW: Is Parker's opening line for Ko-Ko coming off the top of his head or did he have it already down?

PS: It’s an arrangement they already had worked out to Cherokee. But instead of playing Cherokee straight, Parker let the arrangement become the melody.

JW: Do we know what impact Charlie Parker had on West Coast jazz musicians during his California trip in 1945?

PS: Parker travels out to Los Angeles in December 1945 with Dizzy Gillespie to play at Billy Berg's club in Hollywood. But when Gillespie and the band return as scheduled in January, Parker remains behind in California. During his months on the scene in 1946, Parker is having the most impact on musicians who are grasping his breakthrough and have access to him displaying it. But that’s a relatively small crew. A lot of bebop's popularization is being done outside of what Parker is doing on the West Coast.

JW: For example?

PS: Dizzy Gillespie is continuing to play and gain acclaim on 52nd Street. In addition, Dizzy and his orchestra record for RCA Victor on February 22, 1946. That's a major session Bird would have been on had he returned to New York as planned. The recording occurs only 15 days after Dizzy leaves the West Coast without Parker and with largely the same group that was on the West Coast.

JW: So Parker remaining on the West Coast plays a minor role in the advancement of bebop out there?

PS: For the most part, yes. Bird's stay in Hollywood is eventful in that other musicians out there are exposed to him. But it's not significant, and the period has its own set of ups and downs, ending with Parker's unfortunate downward health spiral, reaching bottom with the Lover Man session for Dial Records in July 1946. During that recording session, he's completely out of it, and when he returns to his hotel room, he sets fire to the curtains, is arrested and ultimately sentenced to spend time at the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.

JW: Have West Coast jazz musicians been translating and adapting what Parker was doing up until that point?

PS: That's tough to say. He's having an influence on some but not on others. So, if you’re Howard McGhee, you’re already playing bebop and now you’re playing it with the music’s creator. If you’re Willie Smith, your style may be changing a little but probably not at all. If you’re Lu Watters, you're not having anything to do with bebop whatsoever.

JW: So Bird is struggling out there in 1946.

PS: That's fair to say. If Bird had been really popular in 1946, he would have had a home, he would have had money and he would have had drugs instead of getting sick. He has none of those things. Remember, in California in 1946, he's largely a sideman.

JW: So it’s not until after his release from Camarillo in late January 1947 that he has the most impact.

PS: Right. He’s anxious to leave the West Coast after his release. He leaves on April 5, so he's there for two months and a week after his release. Bebop during this time is catching on steadily. But very few things in any art happen in 24 hours. Dizzy’s career is advancing the music, and other primary bebop players are emerging. The general grappling of this new musical concept is making bebop better known. But its development requires lead time to advance and mature.

JW: Fair to say bebop on the West Coast doesn't die out as a result of Bird being off the scene in a hospital?

PS: Yes, exactly. In fact, Bird reaps some of the bounty of bebop's development during his absence. He returns to the scene at a time when bebop's inventiveness is more widely recognized. It's not until 1948 and 1949 that Bird becomes truly big. Charlie Parker with Strings, recorded in November 1949, is just the commercial cherry on the sundae. By then he has established himself here and in Europe as the dominant force. Remember, Birdland opens in New York in December 1949. The largest club in New York wouldn't have been named for Parker if he had been a nobody at that point.

JW: Backing up a bit, is much known about Parker’s period at Camarillo in 1946-'47?

PS: Pianist Joe Albany got busted at about the same time and was there with Bird for a while. But Albany broke out because the facility didn't have tight security where they were housed. Bird actually thought Albany was silly for not using the benefit of the recuperation period.

JW: Did Parker practice while at Camarillo?

PS: Psychiatrists thought Bird should not be allowed to play and that working in a gardening detail would be more productive. He wasn’t allowed to play until the very end of his stay, when he was on work-release.

JW: He seems to have effortlessly kicked the habit for a while at Camarillo.

PS: At Camarillo, he went cold turkey. He was kept off drugs for a half year in 1946 and early 1947.

JW: Does Gillespie avoid re-teaming with Parker because Parker becomes re-addicted to drugs?

PS: I don't know. I think the reason had more to do with Dizzy's own vision of what he wanted to do at that point with a big band and Bird's way of life. Dizzy could see that Parker wasn’t going to change and that he would remain largely unpredictable and irresponsible from an employer's standpoint, which to Dizzy was a liability, despite Bird's musical genius. 

JW: How does Bird view his time in Camarillo?

PS: He views it as incarceration. He doesn’t really see its proactive element. I think Howard McGhee put it best when he said that the only reason why Parker didn't die in 1946 is because of his stay at Camarillo.

JW: Did anyone ever anyone interview the doctors there about Parker?

PS: I don't know. I know that Bird's primary doctor committed suicide soon afterward. Psychiatrists were impressed with Parker's talent and intelligence, but by the time he got to them, he was clean in terms of drug use. So he was just another patient they were tasked with trying to help.

JW: Was there a difference in his playing after Camarillo?

PS: I would say so, but it had little to do with the rest or care at the facility. Camarillo definitely recharged his batteries. Had he not been interned there, Lover Man more than likely would have been his last session.

JW: How does he grow musically?

PS: If you're 25 years old and you’re a creative genius, you’re supposed to grow. One would expect someone at age 26 to be better than they were at age 25. Camarillo protected Parker from himself and let him recharge. It's a convalescence and an essential one to his existence.

JW: What was the reason for his frying during the Lover Man session?

PS: I did a lot of research on this. Doris Parker, Bird's wife at the time, insisted he had a nervous breakdown and was clinically depressed. Based on his drug use and need for psychiatric care, Bird clearly was unhappy, and the emotional setback at the Lover Man session was devastating. Whatever Parker suffered from, it wasn't easily fixed by a drug-withdrawal regimen or gardening program. While this experience cleans him up, it doesn’t resolve whatever long-term mental issues he was facing.

JW: How did Miles Davis wind up being the leader on the modernist Milestones session of August 14, 1947?

PS: It’s a confluence of several things: If you’re Herman Lubinsky, owner of Savoy Records, and you’re going to record Miles as a leader with Bird on the date, you have to change the way the records sound from those Miles recorded as a sideman with Bird. Even more important, by August 1947, Dial Records’ owner and producer Ross Russell had arrived in New York and told Lubinsky that he was going to sue him. Herman had recorded Bird on Donna Lee, Chasing the Bird, Cheryl and Buzzy, which Russell contended was a breach of his exclusive contract with Parker.

JW: How does the threat of a suit play into Davis recording with Bird as the leader?

PS: If you look at when the earlier Savoy records were issued, Lubinsky releases two of them and then waits a long time before issuing the other two. He’s genuinely afraid of being sued and losing. So hiding Bird by having him switch to tenor sax and making him a sideman to Miles does the trick. As for the music itself, it’s Miles’ music and he has a completely different flavor from what he was playing with Bird previously.

JW: Was Bird resistant to Miles adapting Gil Evans’ cooler approach?

PS: Actually you may have the cart and horse reversed.

JW: How so?

PS: Bird was hanging out at Gil Evans’ West 55th St. apartment before Miles. I’m not saying that Miles wasn’t there. But Gil certainly already knew Bird personally and may have known Miles at the time as well. Gil told me that Bird was at his apartment early on. Of course, what are now known as the so-called Birth of the Cool sessions were still off in the distance in the summer of 1947—they're a year and a half away.

JW: So what’s the significance of the Milestones session?

PS: It’s ultimately Miles’ music and direction. It’s also one of the first times earlier take numbers were chosen as the masters. Previously, producers tended to choose later takes for obvious reasons: They were more perfect, which is why additional takes were requested in the first place. Here, Miles picked the early takes. Vernon Davis, Miles’ brother, confirmed that for me. Miles felt earlier takes had the right energy and excitement and that later takes only polished the edge off what made the recordings special.

JW: And yet the Milestones session has a cooler, fresher feel.

PS: Yes, Miles is already coming up with an antithesis to bebop’s thesis just at the moment the music was new. That approach is part of Miles’ chameleon-like stripe. On the other hand, perception is in the ears of the listener.

JW: Meaning?

PS: That the music is what it is. I can play the songs recorded on the Milestones session in my Juilliard class 1,000 times and no one would discern what’s bebop and what’s not quite bebop. It all would sound like one thing. Students would probably just wonder who the tenor player was.

JW: But the material clearly is cooler sounding. Are you saying it isn’t?

PS: Oh, no. The tracks certainly are the zygote of cool and clearly embryonic to what’s coming. But it’s a bebop record date, too. This is what Miles and pianist John Lewis were about at this point in time. Their thinking was, “Let’s do bebop but with Lester Young’s phrasing.”

JW: Speaking of phrasing, what’s the story behind Parker’s Mood, recorded in September 1948? And how does Parker come to deliver one of the greatest sax solos of all time?

PS: Well…

JW: I know, I know you’re probably going to argue with that, but…

PS: Well, no. Parker’s Mood is one of the definitive masterpieces in the history of music. But if we’re talking about Charlie Parker. I would expect him to hit it out of the park every once in a while, wouldn’t you? If he's as great as we believe him to be, you'd have to assume there would be moments of astonishing brilliance.

JW: Why the word “mood” in the title?

PS: Using the word mood was a big Savoy Records thing then. It’s one of the ways in which record companies attempted hipness. That Bird is going to play a blues on the date makes sense. Why it takes on the dirge quality is simply the feeling the musicians had at that moment.

JW: Was it supposed to be a quartet recording?

PS: Not intentionally. Miles Davis was there earlier on September 18 with Bird recording Barbados, Ah-Leu-Cha and Constellation. But then he had to leave. Miles was wrapping up his gig at the Royal Roost at the time with the first performances of his Birth of the Cool nonet and probably had to get ready.

JW: Was Parker put off by King Pleasure’s vocalese rendition in December 1953 of Parker’s Mood, which featured lyrics that seemed to foreshadow Parker’s death?

PS: I don’t know—and I don’t know if it has even been documented. King Pleasure’s recording was made at the end of 1953 and became a hit in 1954. When Bird dies in March 1955, that’s when the double meaning of the lyrics was noticed. While Parker is alive, the lyrics were simply a sad story being narrated by a singer, similar in many ways to the lyrics to St. James Infirmary.

JW: What do Charlie Parker's live Royal Roost recordings tell us about him as an artist?

PS: The first consideration is whether one likes Charlie Parker better in a live setting or a recording studio. A lot of people prefer Parker live, for the spontaneity and energy. But there's more to these particular live sessions. With the Roost recordings, you're getting a great quantity of music featuring Bird with his working band, not Bird in jam sessions. Some Roost performances are more raggedy than others, but you’re hearing a working band on the gig.

JW: Why is a working band so important?

PS: You really don't have many other previous examples of Parker recording with the same band he played gigs with every night. The big exception is the Dean Benedetti field recordings, which only captured Bird's solos. What's more, the Roost radio broadcasts capture an exciting audio quality.

JW: Who recorded them?

PS: I believe they were recorded by WMCA's technicians rather than as pure air checks. The reason I feel strongly about this is that when you hear WMCA announcer Bob Garrity back at the studio doing the commercial breaks, he sounds very dull. From a fidelity standpoint, he should be at least be equal in sound quality to what’s being recorded at the club. Instead, his voice gets very dull.

JW: So what do we have here?

PS: I believe you’re hearing an air check when Garrity is on doing ads back at the studio but a professionally miked field-location recording when you hear Parker and his band.

JW: What else makes the Roost recordings remarkable?

PS: The fact that this radio show was on weekly is unbelievable. In essence, you have an appointment to hear Bird live once a week for four months. Wow. That is distinctive.

JW: What are we hearing in the development of Parker as an artist?

PS: He’s clearly in a comfort zone. I always have high expectations for Bird, and on these recordings he fulfills them. I expect Bird to play at an optimum during this period with his working band. He’s a nightclub creature and he’s in a club. He carefully picked the band and you’re hearing him with that band. They’re working nightly, so they’re going to be more cohesive. My expectations are set by those parameters.

JW: Yet he sounds pretty good on every recording.

PS: Of course. If you threw Charlie Parker in with anybody, he’s going to sound great. But if you let him pick the setting and an all-star team of musicians, he should sound even better. And he does on these Roost recordings.

JW: So this is Bird in the wild.

PS: Well, he’s certainly playing longer solos than on studio recordings. He's in his habitat, which is probably more accurate than “in the wild."

JW: But doesn't he become a greater miracle through these recordings?

PS: I’m kind of one-universe kind of guy. To me, Bird is the miracle, regardless of the setting. I understand the importance of the Roost recordings, but I don’t have to use them as part of a rating system against the Savoy studio recordings or anything else. They are what they are. I’m not putting any negative aspect on your enthusiasm. But my enthusiasm is expressed by my esthetic and my judgment.

JW: Let me rephrase: When you hear Parker at the Roost, does his playing become something more special for you?

PS: We’d be much less informed if we didn't have those recordings. But I’m going by a different group of identifying factors than perhaps your questions are probing. I want to hear a working band. On most of his previous studio dates as a leader, he’s not leading a working band.

JW: So the fact that these recordings capture Parker with the band he gigged with night after night make them extra special.

PS: Yes, in that regard they are very special.

JW: In December 1948, Miles Davis decided to leave the Charlie Parker All Stars. Why?

PS: The straw that broke the camel’s back was Parker’s selection of pianist Al Haig to replace Duke Jordan.

JW: Who did Davis want?

PS: Miles wanted John Lewis, and he told Parker. Bird said, “If you want John Lewis to be the pianist, get your own band.” Miles had already made headway toward forming his own band with his nonet, which had played the Royal Roost and was due to record the so-called “Birth of the Cool" session for Capitol in January. Of course, John Lewis was on piano.

JW: What did Parker have against John Lewis?

PS: Nothing. Look, if you’re going to choose one pianist, does that mean every other pianist sucks? It doesn’t.

JW: But it does mean that you hear something special in one pianist over another.

PS: Bird had heard Al Haig before. Haig had recorded with Bird as early as May 1945. He and Dizzy went nightclubbing often and heard him many times. Haig also is in California at Billy Berg’s with Bird and Dizzy. Haig is who Bird likes and wants, so he hires who he wants.

JW: Was there ever any hard feelings by Lewis toward Bird over his selection?

PS: None whatsoever. I interviewed John Lewis about Charlie Parker fairly frequently. John said he would have accepted the job, but there was no ill will. If you were to bear a grudge against every leader who didn’t hire you, every sideman in the world would hate 98% of the leaders.

JW: Does the Charlie Parker with Strings session in November 1949 successfully link modern jazz and pop?

PS: It has a lasting effect in this specific sense: the concept that Parker envisions becomes a door-opening device that allows jazz improvisers to this day to seek a lush background texture. The albums these artists create are then considered pop records by the marketplace. Stan Getz, Johnny Hodges, Chet Baker, Harry Carney, Clifford Brown, Wynton Marsalis and many others recorded albums with the same concept Bird pioneered.

JW: What does Charlie Parker With Strings do for jazz-pop? 

PS: It's the creation of a new slice of the jazz pie. The result becomes an offshoot of the pop field at a time when jazz was no longer the center of the pop idiom.

JW: Did the Charlie Parker with Strings concept originate as something of an accident?

PS: How so?

JW: In December 1947, Bird’s recording of Repetition with Neal Hefti is really the basis for Charlie Parker With Strings.

PS: I don’t think so. I think Bird tells us in interviews that it’s not. Repetition was an opportunity for Bird to come in the back door to mak a record he tells us he had already envisioned. When he hears Hefti conducting his orchestra on Repetition, he hears his concept and wants in.

JW: And Charlie Parker With Strings?

PS: It’s a great album because Bird wants it to be that way. Remember, the album is his concept. Later, other jazz artists piggyback on his invention.

JW: Such as Clifford Brown with Strings in January 1955?

PS: Clifford Brown With Strings is among the most profoundly beautiful jazz music ever played. But Brownie is locked into a concept on there. With Bird, since it’s his vision, there’s much less limitation on what he wants to try on what is ostensibly a bebop record with strings.

JW: So does Repetition in 1947 have absolutely nothing to do with Charlie Parker With Strings?

PS: That's correct. It’s an early outcropping of Bird's desire to make a strings album.

JW: But Parker wandered onto the main stage in Carnegie Hall, heard Hefti and asked to play a solo over Hefti's orchestral chart.

PS: Bird asked in and joined Hefti’s concept. It was an opportunity to express himself by joining Hefti’s record date. He does so because he can envision the possibility.

JW: But isn’t he hearing the effect that his alto and the strings are having together?

PS: Yes he is. He understands what the merger is going to sound like. But he didn’t get the idea by lucking into a guest appearance with Hefti. He already had the vision, which perhaps grows over the next two years. For Bird, Repetition may indeed be the first example of the experience.

JW: So Repetition for Parker is the first experience of hearing his alto against strings.

PS: Yes. But producer Norman Granz didn’t want to record Charlie Parker With Strings in 1949.

JW: Why not?

PS: Why would anyone want to spend extra money on something that might not work? And that it did work is the genius of it all and why the concept continues to be repeated to this day.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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