After David Remnick took command as editor of The New Yorker in 1998, he curtailed the late Whitney Balliett’s contributions to the magazine, relegated him to writing about celebrities like Barbra Streisand and eventually dropped the pre-eminent jazz writer altogether. Characteristically, Balliett kept quiet about the slight, but he was hurt and humiliated. In their fury, some of his devoted readers unsubscribed and never forgave Remnick. The editor himself is a gifted writer. The Balliettomanes may be somewhat mollified by Remnick’s piece about a voluble eccentric dedicated to making people understand and appreciate jazz. The first sentence of Remnick’s profile of Phil Schaap in the May 19th issue of The New Yorker is almost as long as a Charlie Parker solo and perfectly captures Schaap’s magnificent fixation.
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.”
The article illuminates Schaap’s obsessive-compulsive persona, his exhaustive–and exhausting–knowledge of jazz, and the status of the music American culture owes so much and appreciates so little. To read Remnick’s profile of Schaap, go here. At the bottom of the online pages is an audio player, giving you the opportunity to listen to Schaap ruminating his way through a substantial portion of one of his broadcasts.