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Phil Schaap's 50-Year Career: The Raconteur Raised On Jazz

Phil Schaap in WKCR studio, 1991
John Abbott
John Abbott
Phil Schaap in WKCR studio, 1991

It's not hard to imagine a world where a search for the phrase "jazz connoisseur" turns up a photo of the grinning mug of Phil Schaap. As a historian and educator, a Grammy-winning reissue producer, a curator and a pontificator, Schaap has more than earned his prestigious stature as the2021 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellow for Jazz Advocacy.

For jazz fans the world over — but especially on Schaap's home turf, New York City — his name and professorial baritone are synonymous with Bird Flight, the Charlie Parker-focused radio show he began broadcasting on WKCR in the 1980s. The deepest of dives into Parker's musical life, it has long been legendary for the tangential obsessions of its host, whom the New Yorker once characterized as "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.'"

In this episode of Jazz Night in America, we catch up with Schaap, considering not only his singular career on the air, but also the jazz series he ran for nearly two decades at the West End Café on Manhattan's Upper West Side. We'll also hear glowing testimonials from former students and fellow travelers, notably Wynton Marsalis, who as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center has sought Schaap's counsel in both educational and concert programming. "All music is present tense, if it's being played or listened to," Schaap tells us, voicing a truth that underscores his life's work. "That's one of its charms — it's a present-tense joy."


George Kelly and the Jazz Sultans: George Kelly, tenor saxophone; Irvin Stokes, trumpet; Richard Wyands, piano; Peck Morrison, bass; Ronnie Cole, drums.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra: Wynton Marsalis, music director, trumpet; Ryan Kisor, trumpet; Kenny Rampton, trumpet; Marcus Printup, trumpet; Greg Gisbert, trumpet; Jonah Moss, trumpet; Vincent Gardner, trombone; Chris Crenshaw, trombone; Elliot Mason, trombone; Jeffery Miller, trombone; Sam Chess, trombone; Kasperi Sarikoski, trombone; Sherman Irby, alto saxophone; Ted Nash, alto saxophone; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone; Julian Lee, tenor saxophone; Walter Blanding, tenor saxophone; Paul Nedzela, baritone saxophone; James Chirillo, guitar; Dan Nimmer, piano; Russell Hall, bass; Carlos Henriquez, bass; Marion Felder, drums; Ali Jackson, drums; Jason Marsalis, drums.

Set List:

George Kelly and the Jazz Sultans

  • Kelco Bosso (George Kelly and Ronnie Cole)
  • C Jam Blues (Duke Ellington)
  • Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis

  • Peace (Ornette Coleman; arr. Wynton Marsalis)
  • Pan-Dameronium (Tadd Dameron)
  • Topsy (Duke Ellington; arr. Keith Nichols)
  • Credits:

    Writer and Producer: Alex Ariff; Host: Christian McBride; Music Engineer: Rob Macomber; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Producer: Katie Simon; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand; Senior Director of NPR Music: Lauren Onkey.

    Special thanks to Matthew Rivera, Madeline Cuddy, Georgina Javor, and Vincent Gardner.

    Copyright 2022 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.