The Mr. Memory of Jazz

AP Photo/Jean-Jacques Levy

I’m a huge fan of saxophone genius Charlie Parker, the man known as Bird. Recently I’ve been listening to live recordings instead of his studio work, most taken from scratchy acetates of ancient radio broadcasts or lo-fi private recordings made by fans like the legendary Dean Benedetti. Even in our internet era, it can be hard to find detailed, reliable information about live recordings from, say, 1947 at LA’s long-defunct Hi-De-Ho Club. In the process of researching, I found David Remnick‘s 2008 New Yorker article “Bird Watcher.”

In it, Remnick profiles jazz historian and Charlie Parker devotee Phil Schaap, who’s hosted “Bird Flight,” on Columbia University’s radio station for three decades. Although this article is a decade old, it remains relevant because Bird’s art remains relevant, or as Remnick puts it, “There is no getting to the end of Charlie Parker.” Parker died in 1955, yet new CDs keep coming out containing historic live recordings that have finally been remastered or re-sequenced. Schaap’s knowledge is so deep that when Dean Benedetti’s lost live recordings of Bird — one of jazz’s true holy grails — needed preserving and documentation, Schaap did the job, reinforcing eight miles worth of disintegrating tape by hand. A repository of information, he relishes minutia and arcana; his show’s winding, digressive style blurs, in Remnick’s words, “the line between exhaustive and exhausting.”

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.”

When Charlie Bird died, fans painted “Bird Lives!” on buildings around New York City. Thanks to fans like Schaap, the epitaph holds true for fans like me.

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