I’m a couple days late here, but bravo to the three brilliant and deserving musicians in the newest class of NEA Jazz Masters. I particularly want to shout out the 4th member of that cohort, the historian/producer/archivist/DJ/mensch Phil Schaap. He’s a mysteriously polarizing figure (though literally the only criticism I’ve ever heard is that he talks too much, which is maybe true but the absurdity of ME criticizing someone for that is more than my brain can handle) but my goodness has this man spent his life working to elevate the visibility and understanding of the art form he loves from the bottom of his heart and the depths of his utterly remarkable mind.
I met Phil when I took a semester of Jazz History with Phil in college (preceded by a semester where I often sat in on his class) and so much about it was illuminating. Sure, I learned a lot about a host of great musicians, with memorable and in-depth units on Bird, Dizzy, Monk, Mingus, ‘Trane, Miles, Max, Bu, and Ornette. I’m grateful for all that education and all that music to which I was exposed (some of it well beyond what would typically be presented in that setting). But what I remember most is the way he embodied and modeled reverence and devotion that was to-the-core deep and not just PC lip service. I remember very fondly the quizzes and tests from his course, which challenged us to really learn the material with a level of rigor that rendered more superficial “study for the test” techniques basically inert, which in turn trained me to “study” in a whole different way (at least in scenarios where my goal was to truly know the corresponding material), such that the test would actually be a fun opportunity to spend some time digging into that material.
One story stands out from a class session that first/auditing semester when I didn’t yet know Phil or his work well at all. After discussing oral histories of Buddy Bolden, he talked about the career of Freddie Keppard. He explained that in that era soloists didn’t really improvise and expressed lightheartedly that if you put them on the spot and asked them to ad lib a couple choruses on a blues they couldn’t do it. I was starting to chuckle . . . and then on the turn of a dime his face became stone cold serious. “BUT,” he continued, “if any of you ever becomes a fraction of the musician Freddie Keppard was, that will be a major accomplishment.” I nearly fell out of my seat, I was so disarmed by this. And as much as I would like to say that my experiences listening to Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet had already brought me to this place, it was at that precise moment that I was challenged into changing my attitude about the pre-bebop stuff that I had largely resisted viewing as anything but occasional duty. And it went beyond opening up to King Oliver, to more Pops, to Earl Hines, and so on. It also jolted me on a more global level to challenge my biases, so often formed from ego and/or drawing conclusions from a limited sample size of information and/or the laziness of not wanting to open further cans of worms of music that was foreign to me yet important to learn about.
Maybe the greatest impact of that moment, though, was the look in his eyes. That sounds corny, I realize, and it’s certainly difficult to quantify. But I could tell this wasn’t a theatrical performance. This was the fire and brimstone of a preacher who had devoted his life to that which was sacred and who was sharing a piece of the substance that governed his life’s work. I have strived to internalize that and it is through that lens that I have viewed all subsequent encounters with him and that is part of why I was as studious as I was when studying with him after that. Where someone else listening to “Bird Flight” might complain that they wish he’d shut up and play more of the music, I hear the preaching of someone whose depth of devotion (and corresponding trove of knowledge and understanding) is itself a wonder to behold, and one that, unlike the recorded documents of what Bird himself played, is finite and meant to be savored while we still have the gift of Phil being with us.
Ultimately, my path-crossing with Phil in college was one of a small handful of formative experiences that I can say with confidence shaped who I am today. I owe him a substantial debt and I have worked hard to pay it forward – to the music, to those who love it, to those who COULD love it with the right kind of understanding and exposure, and to those who aspire to get seriously involved with it and need to understand the depth of study and humility that entails and just how holy a space that is. It occurs to me that he was a little younger than I am now when I met him and if I can have a fraction of that impact on my students that he had on me, it might just be an even bigger accomplishment than becoming a fraction of the musician Freddie Keppard was.