Thursday, May 15, 2008
Mixed feelings have I re: seeing Phil Schaap immortalized in this New Yorker profile by David Remnick. I'm happy he's getting that broad of a platform, but a little wary about the quality of the exposure.
As with many NYer profiles, this one exposes its subject to equal amounts of reverence and ridicule. And maybe that's inevitable. It's easy to make fun of Phil. I myself remember tuning in when he was discussing that whole "okiedoke" issue that Remnick recounts (i.e., he spent like 30 minutes on "Bird Flight" one recent morning trying to archaeologically suss out the way Charlie Parker might have prounounced that throwaway term) and being somewhat freaked out. So yes, Phil's "crazy," an egghead, what have you, right?
But he's also been hugely inspiring to me and a ton of others that have either listened to him over the years or worked under him at WKCR. I learned a ton during my time at WKCR (I'm still there when I can get there, but I guess I'd have to consider myself more of an alum than anything else), and not just about music, but about journalism in general, mainly the importance of being thorough in what you do and not to talk out your ass, as it were.
I can't say that I've always honored that credo over my subsequent years of writing, but I hold Phil's insane thoroughness (shared by his colleague and my longtime friend Ben Young) up as a gold standard, something to strive for, even if I can rarely go as deep as they do in my work.
As far as the shaming that Remnick mentions, the "pointless" embarrassment of students, I can definitely say I experienced that firsthand. I remember talking with Phil during a "Bird Flight" music break one morning (I had the show before him, and I'd often hang around in the studio), and I mentioned that I had played a Modern Jazz Quartet record. I can't remember exactly what I said about it, but it was something to the effect of it not really sounding like a bebop record. Whatever the observation was, I was just spouting, rambling, etc. Phil looked me right in the eye and said, "KC Hank [that's what he always called me], dig this so you can dig yourself: Talking about bebop drumming without talking about [MJQ drummer] Kenny Clarke is like talking about English literature without Shakespeare." The conversation pretty much ended there. I was stunned, shamed, etc. But you know what? I watched my mouth from then on. Before that I would always take these rambling, digressive mike breaks on air, but after, I just did my job: Played the freakin' records.
I think that's a really important lesson for any journalist to learn, i.e., watch your mouth. Just because you have a public forum doesn't mean you deserve it. You've got to know your shit and be ready to be called on it, harshly, if you don't. That's all Phil is really saying. And in terms of Charlie Parker, or jazz in general, Stanley Crouch is right when he says in the piece that "There is no person in America more dedicated to any art form than Phil is to jazz."
In other news, this book has become my Bible.
And I found the AACM concert/panel discussion (previewed in my last post) to be really something special. I'm publishing a review in an upcoming issue of "The Wire," so I'll leave it at that for now.