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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the February 5, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Jazz on Both Sides of Ivy-Covered Walls
Phil Schaap is passionate about jazz. So passionate
that, over the years, he has been able to turn his avocation into
his vocation. Schaap, for the past decade a visiting professor at
Princeton University, will lecture on one of jazz music’s most important
composers on Saturday, February 8, at Richardson Auditorium, as part
of Princeton’s Jazz Winter Weekend. Schaap will give a talk on "The
Music of Charles Mingus," prior to Saturday evening’s concert
by the Mingus Big Band, a group created by the late bassist’s widow.
Mingus, born in 1922 in Arizona, was raised in the Watts section of
Los Angeles. He is best known for his compositions "The Black
Saint and the Sinner Lady" and "Meditations on Integration."
Unlike so many other jazz musicians of the 1940s and ’50s, Mingus
was not afraid to write politically-charged songs. He wrote "Fables
of Faubus" for the Arkansas governor who tried to keep Little
Rock schools segregated in the 1950s, as well as compositions with
titles like "Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atomic Bomb On
Me" and "Remember Rockefeller at Attica."
In the jazz world, Mingus had the distinction of being the only man
Ellington ever fired from his big band, and that experience provided
the inspiration for Mingus, at varying stages of his life, to form
his own big band. Sadly, unlike Ellington, he never had much success
with his band. He died in 1979 in Mexico after a career rebirth that
included working on an album with pop-folk singer Joni Mitchell.
Since 1989 Schaap — who may be best known for his
work as a radio host on WKCR-FM, the radio station of Columbia University
— has won eight Grammy awards for his work as a reissue producer,
liner notes author, and audio engineer. The boxed sets he has overseen
and won Grammy awards for include "Bird: The Complete Charlie
Parker on Verve," "Lady Day: The Complete Billie Holiday on
Verve," "Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five Recordings,"
and "The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings of Miles Davis and
"These are all massive, multi-CD boxed sets," Schaap says
from his full-time job as curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center. He explains
he got the job as a visiting professor in the American Studies Department
at Princeton University in 1992.
"My first two years at Princeton I was still teaching graduate
classes at Rutgers," he explains, "but in 1991, Cornel West
called me. He didn’t know me from Adam, and he said that people in
his department said I should come down and do, he actually said, `a
prestigious lecture’ for him.
"Anyway, Cornel West booked me for a lecture a year and a half
in advance," Schaap explains, "and the reason why it’s so
special to me is because I do a lot of work in front of people who’ve
known me for decades. After the lecture, Arnold Rampersad, who was
then head of the American Studies department at Princeton, said he
wanted me to teach a senior seminar at Princeton. He didn’t know me
from Adam, either, but attended because it was a Cornel West production,"
Since the early ’90s, Schaap has taught a variety of courses on jazz,
sometimes working with old colleagues from Rutgers to draw on their
expertise. This semester he is teaching "Bebop."
The Jazz Festival Weekend will include a Friday night performance
by a noted Princeton University alumnus, guitarist Stanley Jordan
’81, and an invitational performance by area high school jazz bands
on Saturday afternoon. Event judges will include trumpeter Michael
Phillip Mossman and saxophonist Ralph Bowen, both associated with
Rutgers’ jazz program, and Anthony D.J. Branker of Princeton’s Jazz
"The Princeton program is the oldest American Studies program
at any college in the U.S., and Rampersad and Sean Wilentz [Rampersad
is now at Stanford University and historian Sean Wilentz is chair
of American Studies at Princeton] both understand the essential-ness
of jazz as part of American Studies," Schaap says. "Princeton
University has been very nice to me and has treated me better than
any other employer. When I won the Grammy in 2001, they put me on
the cover page of the Princeton University website."
While he freely admits he was shuffling and scuffling for many years
because of all of his volunteer hours on WKCR-FM, Schaap, now 51,
finds he’s able to make a living in the jazz business.
"Middle age has given me a good opportunity to get some good entry-level
positions," Schaap says, laughing. At Jazz at Lincoln Center,
he oversees the Jazz Hall of Fame that will be in Lincoln Center’s
new jazz-only performance venue on Columbus Circle.
"It’s been my baby to write the biographies for the inductees
and gather the materials for it as well," he says. "I started
an adult education program here at Jazz at Lincoln Center and it’s
been a fairly successful program," he adds.
Schaap can be heard on weekday mornings on WKCR, 89.9 FM, from 8:20
a.m. to 9:30 a.m., on Monday afternoons from noon to 3 p.m., and on
Saturday evenings from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. However, since the Trade Center
attacks of September 11, 2001, WKCR’s transmitter was moved to a less
desirable location and its signal is not what it once was in central
Schaap got hooked on jazz music as a seven-year-old, growing up in
Hollis, Queens. His mother was a chief librarian at the Jamaica Public
Library in Queens, and his father worked writing scripts for educational
films. Both were avid jazz fans who left the jazz business in the
late 1940s for the more stable income provided in the education field.
How does he explain the now-admirable position he finds himself in,
dividing his time between Princeton University, Jazz at Lincoln Center,
and WKCR-FM’s uptown studios?
"When I was 50, I cobbled together a career," he explains.
"I was always doing four or five things. Now I’ve given up all
classroom teaching except Princeton and I gave up the record business
reissue stuff to do the Jazz at Lincoln Center business. Basically,
I would say I’ve put my eggs in the educational basket. That it took
30 years to do it doesn’t make me so lucky."
"My luck was that I met these jazz musicians who were my idols
as a child, because they all moved to Hollis, Queens. They were able
to give me an education that is now unavailable, and which I’ve chosen
to spend the balance of my time trying to convey to people who weren’t
fortunate enough to be raised by people like [trumpeter] Roy Eldridge,"
Schaap recalls his early teen years in Hollis in the
1960s, frequently visiting the houses of such greats as Eldridge,
Jaki Byard, Lester Young, Milt Hinton, Buck Clayton, Bud Johnson,
and Lenny Tristano. He says some people from the blues world, like
blind harmonica player Sonny Terry and blind guitarist Reverend Gary
Davis, lived even closer.
"When I played whiffle-ball at Glenn Gisseck’s house, I used to
hit a home run into Sonny Terry’s yard. I’d hop over the fence to
get the ball, and they’d all say, `Aren’t you afraid he’s going to
see you?’ I’d say, no, ’cause they didn’t know who Sonny Terry was."
It’s difficult to hear Schaap on the radio or in person without being
swept up in his enthusiasm for jazz music. At his lecture Schaap will
cover the basics of Mingus’ life and times and his place in jazz and
American music history. Mingus also lived for a time in New York,
and sure enough, Schaap befriended the bassist there.
"I’m going to tell people about Mingus’ background, his astuteness
about jazz’s sources, the blues and the church music connection, and
the Ellington connection. But the strongest connection to him was
when he discovered bebop via Charlie Parker. Mingus never had the
economic clout to carry a big band with him like Duke Ellington did,"
"This concert is organized by his widow and it’s a posthumous
recognition. It’s the big band that Mingus always wanted to have."
— Richard J. Skelly
Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Princeton Concert Jazz Ensemble
followed at 8:30 p.m. by Stanley Jordan, Princeton 1981, on electric
guitar. $17 to $26; students $2. Friday, February 7, 7:30 p.m.
Richardson Auditorium, 609-258-5000. Mingus Big Band master class
at 4 p.m. Lecture with Phil Schaap at 7 p.m., and Mingus Big Band
show at 8 p.m. $17 to $26; students $2. Saturday, February 8, 4
and 8 p.m.
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