A History of WKCR's Jazz Programming
An interview with Phil Schaap
Conducted, transcribed, and edited by Evan Spring
October 5th, 1992
What were the first jazz broadcasts in 1941?
WKCR began with jazz programming in its initial program. The Columbia University Radio Club began broadcasting, apparently to the dormitories, on February 24th, 1941. There was enough interest in the actual formalization of broadcast radio and radio electronics, that they went through all the rigamarole of a formal filing with the FCC, and made a contract, recognized by the Federal government and NY state, that started our broadcasts on October 10th of 1941 at 9am. Now whether the proverbial first broadcast -- which started with "Swing is Here", a record with Gene Krupa and Roy Eldridge -- was in fact the radio club closed circuit broadcast of February 24th, 1941, or the actual formal beginning of us as a FCC-recognized station on October 10, 1941, will never be settled, and it doesn't really matter. As one of the older guys pointed out to me in 1987, knowing the spirit of the station at that time, they undoubtedly played jazz on both broadcasts.
Should we be at all surprised that an Ivy League university would consider jazz a high enough art form to include in its radio station at that time?
Apparently WKCR was perceived as enough of a student club, letting off tensions and pressures, that it wasn't seen as a big deal. Columbia didn't have a strong interest in formulating programming. And unlike its Ivy League brethren colleges, Columbia had this proximity to the jazz world -- not exactly situated in Harlem, but close enough that a great deal of night life in Harlem, and indeed of jazz nightlife in NYC, was picked up on by students.
This tradition of Columbia students' interest in jazz predates the formalization of WKCR. The earliest jazz critics were Columbia students. Barry Ulanov, who was class of '39, went on to become the editor of Metronome. Jack Kerouac, class of '43, and the Avakian brothers -- Al and George, although George did not go to Columbia -- were writing jazz reviews as high school students at Horace Mann, up on 120th St. inside Teacher's College. Then you had Ralph Gleason, class of '36, one of the great jazz writers. And Ralph Detolledano, I think class of '38; his book was Frontiers of Jazz. He ended up writing speeches for Nixon, of all things -- here he was Vice-President of the Young Communist League. The translator for the French jazz scholars was my own father, Walter Schaap, class of '37. Eddie Sauter, the arranger, was class of '36. Orrin Keepnews, the writer and record producer, is class of '43; Walter C. Allen, the great discographer, is class of '42; and Jerry Newman, the field recording artist, is class of '42. They figure in the early history of WKCR.
The call letters "WKCR" were adopted in 1947. Before that, it was CURC, which stood for Columbia University Radio Club. It was four letters, so it was legal -- you didn't have to have the "W" at the time. Jazz programming was the essential musical thrust.
One of the highlights of CURC -- the student interviewers had people on like Bela Bartok, who was a Columbia music professor at the time, and played them jazz records to get their reactions. None of the broadcasts with Bartok survived. However, another music professor, who was on the following week's program, agrees with Bartok, who had apparently reacted favorably to Coleman Hawkins. The record that was played for Bartok, and indeed for all music professors who were on, was "Body and Soul".
During World War II, there were commercial interests which sponsored war broadcasts of great jazz music -- Coca-Cola's "spotlight on bands", for instance -- and they would have these at semi-public places, like a University campus, or an army base. A number of these were originally broadcast on WKCR live from campus. Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra would be a prominent one.
Far more interesting, in terms of live jazz, are the "Delayed on Disc" broadcasts from Minton's Playhouse on 118th Street. We didn't have a radio wire to Minton's Playhouse -- they would go there with a disc recorder, and would have to run the records back here to play them. So they presented it like it was a live program, but it was "delayed on disc." Clearly the pivotal figure here was Jerry Newman. There are four Minton's Playhouse broadcasts, of which he is the announcer on two of them. An anonymous second voice delighted me doing the announcements on one of the two other broadcasts -- he gets up to announce the band, but apparently there was a bit of bickering over whose band it really was. Joe Guy thought it was his band, Kenny Clarke thought it was his band, Thelonious Monk may have thought it was his band. So he's announcing, "this is Joe Guy's band at the Playhouse, featuring..." -- and he makes a big deal about featuring Kenny Clarke, "and on bass..." -- and you can see he's looking around, that guy's name is... "oh yeah, Nick Fenton" -- and then you realize he doesn't know the piano player's name, but he remembers everybody's been calling him "Monk". So he goes, "and the piano player's name is Monk -- I'm sorry I haven't had time to find out his last name." That's in the archives -- it was re-placed there by yours truly -- the original discs are long gone. The sense of humor of these early WKCR people is very evident; they don't have any formal legal restrictions, so on one of them the guy goes, "this is radio station...", and then he belches.
Dick Hyman, the well-known pianist, and Jerry Valburn, the Ellington collector and radio engineer, did some live broadcasts of Columbia jazz musicians in 1947 or so. This suggests, at the very least, a loosely connected organization of jazz enthusiasts within WKCR. But the numerous departments, which we have now, are a relatively recent innovation. At that time, the departments were much more limited and far less numerous -- just the news department, the sports department, the engineering department, the announcing department... It was more radio-oriented, more nuts-and-bolts radio station components. But there's this jazz enthusiasm.
So moving into the fifties and sixties?
During the next period of WKCR, there's a great deal of transition. The station became very academic, very stodgy. It reflected far less jazz than ever before. There were always token jazz shows, but the music primarily presented was classical. There were live academic broadcasts from Hamilton Hall, panels of professors, and eventually a liaison with the United Nations -- we broadcast the U.N. in session. There were two WKCRs then: WKCR-AM maintained itself as the radio station of fun, while the FM station became this stodgier, voice-of-Columbia-University kind of deal. There were innovative moments musically --Vladimir Ussachevsky, a well-known electronic music pioneer, was on this campus. Across the fifties, jazz was more or less severed from the pop scene, and became perceived, at least in a limited sense, as American art music coming out of a folk background. So jazz could be put in as a small block of program time; there would usually be one or two jazz shows. But their approach became more recognizable, as what you would now consider WKCR style. WKCR wasn't on the air as much then; it wasn't on 24 hours a day, and was off the air during finals and much of the winter and summer.
One of the highlights of this period was a live broadcast in 1960 -- the world's first ever stereo live broadcast of jazz music -- from the sundial, outdoors. It was Red Allen's band, the one that played the Metropole, and had J.C. Higginbotham. You can probably still see the microphone jack, if you look carefully enough around the sundial, and the wire still comes back here.
Another highlight is the often-told story -- I wasn't here for this, and I've picked up fragmentary evidence that's open to interpretation. It seems that when Lincoln Center was opening semi-officially in the Christmas season of 1963, they had a large number of jazz concerts. Ticket sales were not going well, and a search for publicity created a connection for us to present shows heralding the events. So we broadcast a concert of John Coltrane with Eric Dolphy. It was rebroadcast when Dolphy died -- I heard it rebroadcast. Now whether it was a tape of a rehearsal, or whether they came up here and played, or whether as some sort of follow-up program they somehow got a tape of the actual concert at Lincoln Center, is a little fudged -- but legend has it, they actually were here. And having heard the re-broadcast in the summer of '64, I'd say that it was on premises, they played a live performance here. It would be December of 1963: Dolphy, Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones.
And who erased the tape?
Obviously I don't have enough vengeance in my heart; the things I've forgotten are the names I would most like to forget. It was a student board member in 1966, who erased the tape to record auditions in Wollman Auditorium for KCA night, which is a weird panorama of straight-ahead lectures given by school clubs, plus odd performances by administration, professors, and students.
So, the beginning of the jazz department?
The university's standard classroom-on-the-air kind of fare was taken off the air for excellent news department coverage of the student strike in April of 1968. Next fall there was no simple return to the way things were. The following year is a year of transition, what I call "renegade radio" -- for instance, you would occasionally hear The Grateful Dead, who performed live here at Columbia. What Columbia wanted us to broadcast was off the air, but what we were going to become had not yet been formulated. The year after that -- the school year of 1970-1971 -- is the emergence of a creed of alternative radio: the creation of the thinking mentality of the WKCR you now know.
Jamie Katz, who's the son of pianist Dick Katz and has a lot on the ball, got here when the station was in its key period of transition. Jamie got a toehold for jazz, and I arrived immediately thereafter, in February of 1970. Jamie envisioned real expansion of jazz programming. In his junior year, he went away, and what happened then was very quick. Jamie had touched based with a number of other people -- Sharif Abdus-Salaam; Fred Seibert, who was involved in the formulation of MTV; a friend of his who works with him still named Alan Goodman; Jim Carroll; and yours truly. We took a series of decisions by the station, many of them made in December of 1970 -- that we weren't going to be any kind of reflection on commercial radio anymore, and were going to offer a cultural forum to answer needs of listening in the NYC area as opposed to Columbia campus -- and from that comes a jazz department.
The implementation and near finalization of the very breakdown that's still on the air now is operational in 1971-72. Jazz Alternatives, a morning jazz show, the birthday broadcasts, and the festivals were in place. Within a couple of years came "Jazz at One", the precursor of "Out to Lunch". By 1973 or 1974, WKCR is recognized by a wide range of jazz people, and becomes much more important, particularly with the switch of WRVR from an all-jazz church station, at the Riverside Church, to going fusion. And there was no WBGO yet.
A lot of jazz musicians --Lennie Tristano led this -- started a telephone chain to alert everyone to our Charlie Parker festival in August of '73 -- so that that program, as opposed to even our Coltrane festival of September '71, or our Mingus festival of Feb '72 -- though that was important because he actually came here -- was the turning point.
Why do you think the jazz department was created then? Wasn't it a time when jazz musicians couldn't find work?
Jazz was seen as a protest music, and an unrecognized art form that was receiving no other exposure. Another answer is that by coincidence, there was, in the class of '73, yours truly. Suddenly, in this moment of flux, this jazz expert with an audio background walks into the station -- though I imagine if the definitive cajun music specialist with a strong audio background had walked in at that time, you wouldn't have had a cajun station -- a) there wasn't the audience, and b), there was a jazz community that needed help. The third answer is that radio abandoned jazz. There was an absence of a commercial groundswell for jazz music. And so we became much more important than our wildest dreams.
When the jazz department first started, what was balance of traditional jazz, hard bop, and avant-garde programming?
I would say the mix is roughly the same as it is now, and has roughly always been the same. Jamie liked bebop and hard bop, so it was well-represented on his shows. Sharif at first liked R & B, and then he became very enamored with John Coltrane -- but he also had a lot of live jazz. Fred Seibert's interests were eclectic. Our live performances had a big hole in the middle; there were a lot of swing-oriented and avante garde-oriented performances, but not many Art Blakey Jazz Messenger-like performances at that time. I had friendships with people like Lee Konitz, which would fill in that middle -- and with our growing popularity, and with live broadcasts from nightclubs, these gaps were filled in. We had rare Bill Evans music on one time, pre-taped at the Village Vanguard.
So how did the format take its present form?
There was more jazz programming in the 70s. Jazz programming was cut into for the creation of the New Music Department, although some of the avant garde jazz was supposed to be channeled into that. The formula in the 70s would be about 40% jazz, 40% classical, and 20% ethnic musics, with WKCR sports and news getting some of that 20%. Now it's about 35% jazz, 25% new music, 20% classical, and a little more ethnic music programming, but not much more, and some new pockets of American music. The Columbia University-oriented stuff is all gone -- the U.N was the last vestige of it, and that's been off for over a decade.
The AM station should still be ongoing. It's something of a tragedy, because there's so many other things that the student body, and the university, and the student body and the university merged, would like to have on the air. And we still have the license for the AM line.
Can you name all the WKCR jazz festivals?
Let's see if I can name them all -- I betcha I can. The first one was Albert Ayler in the fall of 1970. I remember it being because of the discovery of his death. However, [drummer] Sunny Murray came to this station about eight years ago, and complemented me for doing it before he died. I don't know if that's true, but if Sunny Murray wants to say so, he's got it. The next one was John Coltrane, September '71. February '72 was Mingus; he was the first to participate. Then spring-summer of '72 was Archie Shepp. He was often at the station around this time. Following that would be Charlie Parker, August-September of '73. December '73 was Fletcher Henderson. April of '74 was Duke Ellington. Duke was up here in May of '73 -- he asked to use the phone and split before he would do an interview. August of '74 was Clifford Brown. February of '75 was Ornette Coleman [he participated]; March of '75 was Bessie Smith, and October of '75 was Coleman Hawkins.
March of '76 was Thelonious Monk. There was a guy on the air doing that standard gibberish about Monk: "and Monk, playing the wrong notes on the piano, is able to create this kind of music....". Anyway, Monk called the Columbia switchboard, and the Columbia switchboard got in touch with me and said that Thelonious Monk had called to say that we should tell the guy on the air, "The piano aint got no wrong notes."
April of '76 was Lester Young. August of '76 was King Oliver. March-April of '77 was Eric Dolphy. January of '78 was Roy Eldridge [he participated]. March of '78 was Sonny Rollins [he participated]. May of '78 was the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians] festival. Most of the AACM had interviews. Leroy Jenkins, I remember, was a great interview -- he was a very cheerful person. I'll never forget, at the end of it, his saying, "Thank God for the AACM. If it wasn't for the AACM, I would have ended up just another bebop musician."
August of '78 was the first Lost Masters festival, in which we did Bubber Miley, Jimmy Harrison, Frank Teschemacher, Dick Wilson, Herschel Evans, Herbie Nichols, Fats Navarro, and Jimmy Blanton. December of '78 was Chick Webb. March of '79 was Cecil Taylor [he participated].
July of '79 was Miles Davis. He called in a lot -- I fielded many of those phone calls, of which the only one I really deem worthy of surviving in history is his onomatopoetic listings of the correct names and titles of his albums that had only come out in Japan up to that point. I took them down, and then, at the end of what was over two hours of information, he said "You got it?". I said, "Yes, Mr. Davis" -- I Mr. Davis-ed him the whole week, to be truthful. And he said, "Good. Now forget it. Forget it. And play Sketches of Spain right now!" So I walked into master control, and just to make it more dramatic, I picked up the needle with the pot up, and plunked it down hot. We played all of Sketches of Spain and then went back to the chronology.
In 1980, we did Teddy Wilson in March, Oscar Pettiford in April, and Louis Armstrong in July. Teddy Wilson participated. In 1981 it was Ben Webster in January, Max Roach in March [he participated], Bix Beiderbecke in August, and Steve Lacy in November [he participated]. In March of 1982, the second Lost Masters Festival was Chu Berry, Freddie Webster, Clarence Eugene Shaw, and Jimmy Noone. Then Benny Carter was in August [he participated]. Mary Lou Williams was May of '83. Charlie Christian was July of '83. Then December into January, '83 to '84, was Earl "Fatha" Hines.
Count Basie was August of '84. Basie refused to have us do the festival in August of '82 -- he said to wait for his eightieth birthday, and when Count Basie tells you what to do, you do it. I had great regrets, of course, because he died in April of '84, and would have participated in the festival.
The third Lost Masters Festival, in May 1985, was Joe Smith, Lucky Thompson (the only living lost master), Booker Little, and Scott LaFaro. Summer '85 was Jack Teagarden. November of '85 was Jelly Roll Morton. Cannonball Adderley was May of '86. Summer '86 was Eddie Durham [he participated]. Rahsaan Roland Kirk was August of '86. Sun Ra was April of '87 [he participated], in conjunction with the New Music Department. Dizzy Gillespie was May of '87 [he participated]. Sidney Bechet was May of '88. Summer of '88 was the fourth Lost Masters Festival, with Big Sid Catlett, Ma Rainey, Billy Strayhorn and Serge Chaloff. Fats Waller was May of '89. Art Blakey was November of '89 [he participated]. May of '90 was Ella Fitzgerald and Lionel Hampton [he participated]. May of '91 was the fifth Lost Masters Festival, which was Frankie Newton, Lonnie Johnson, Phineas Newborn, and Tadd Dameron. And we did Don Cherry [he participated] this May, with the New Music Department. [The Milt Jackson festival took place December-January 1993.]
What about live music broadcasting of the last twenty years?
With the creation of the jazz department, there was an expansion of live jazz performances, both in-studio and from our visiting the jazz clubs.
Many people would incorporate live music from the studios onto their programs. I had Doc Cheatham here over twenty years ago, and Dicky Wells, Skeeter Best, Tommy Bryant... One of the great things I remember was having these old trumpet players read in alternating voices King Oliver's letters: Bill Dillard, who's still alive, Franc Williams, Edgar Battle...
Many records were recorded here in the days of our greater technical equipment and expertise. There was an album called "Friends" that Fred Seibert put out, on the Oblivion label, with Marc Cohen, a saxophonist who was the best musician on campus. He's now a keyboard player and goes by the name Marc Copeland.
I engineered one called "The Moudon Peace Excursion". Sharif Abdus-Salaam had a show called "Jazz 'Til Midnight" on Sunday nights. The Moudon Peace Excursion was a band of 26 players, that we had to put in three separate rooms within WKCR. I mastered the tape to be issued in Japan. The Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, some of their stuff was on WKCR.
Eventually a show was created for live jazz on Tuesday nights; that grew into a regular broadcast from the West End, from 1977 to 1990. That was followed by live jazz from Birdland in 1991. We still hope to go to the Village Vanguard, and I imagine that will actually take place. Lorraine Gordon [the owner] still wants it, but it's a question of some money being put up. Visits to other clubs were numerous -- we did a long series from the Blue Note [1982-83], and many broadcasts from the original Jazz Forum [1980-82]. Probably our most prestigious events would be the Public Theater concert series [1977-81] and the Improvisations on Monk concert in November of '81, in this building, which we sponsored and first broadcast. It's now an National Public Radio thing; we only had a one-time broadcast right on it.
What are the most treasured possessions in the archives?
The interviews and the rare music which cannot be replaced, which is a broad answer to that question. Sun Ra is unlikely to do a great interview again. And there's the Charles Mingus interview, with Sharif Abdus-Salaam and Vernon Gibbs, from 1972. Then I like that interview with Lee Young on Lester Young's birthday in 1988. And many of the Charlie Parker associates. There's a wealth of Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and Benny Carter interviews. Gil Evans...
What about WKCR's uniqueness in memorial broadcasts?
The memorial broadcasts and birthday broadcasts are fairly obvious -- people now follow our example and do these things outside of the jazz field -- but we've become reknowned for it. It seems to me that Mingus' death in January of 1979 crystallized and expanded our concept of memorial broadcasts. It was sort of like the world stopped, and we just played Mingus for days.
What about the birthday broadcasts?
The initial decision, made by the executive board in 1978, was one a month -- but the jazz department didn't want to base their decision on a one-a-month formula. So they said that's cool, we could do it twelve days in a row if we wanted, but twelve is the limitation. At the time Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Roy Eldridge were still alive -- so with a slight tilt towards living artists, a bunch of names were submitted to the executive board. They made the decision for us, and came up with the present list, with the exception of John Coltrane. Coltrane didn't make the cut -- you see, he was dead. Then the Jon Gill board added Coltrane. But many other birthday broadcasts have been done; briefly Eric Dolphy, Miles Davis regularly.
And Bird Flight [Phil's show every weekday morning from 8:20 to 9:30]?
Well, that's not exclusively a WKCR story. I was on WBGO as the morning person from 1980 to 1984, and as the years progressed, there was a leaning towards, briefly if not permanently, a more contemporary (read: fusion, new recordings) kind of dimension. I had already been playing Charlie Parker on WKCR for years. Well WBGO, despite the fact it was their biggest fundraising thing, said they didn't want it anymore. I don't think they wanted old recordings on the air. So Bird Flight became the exclusive domain of WKCR on April 8, 1981.
How has the jazz department been important in fundraising?
Jazz is the primary fundraising agent of on-air fundraising at WKCR. There were three crucial fundraisers. The Duke Ellington festival of April, 1974, which was a fundraiser, established our economic independence. Later, in 1976, all of the transmitter was paid for by jazz programming. And then the equipment changes at the World Trade Center in 1980-81 were paid for by a fundraising festival I did called the Technical Difficulties Festival, in May of 1981.
My efforts as sole fundraising agent of the station were pivotal in the station getting its financial independence. This story is fairly simple. We broke with Columbia University in the late 60s, established the alternative format by the beginning of the 70s, and in April of 1974, we were informed that our economic support from the University to continue broadcasting was being pulled out.
The reason was a fairly straightforward one from Columbia University's perspective. The journalism school had gained a cable TV station. Broadcast journalism was supplanting print journalism. Elie Abel, a big NBC television personality who quit to become dean of the journalism school, wanted a radio station to go along with the cable TV station. However, you can't just glibly cut the heart out of a successful student-run operation. So the university tried to make us collapse, as Spectator once collapsed, economically.
They dropped this on the station manager, and he had nothing to do with the jazz department. I have a great deal of respect for him -- Tony Hurling was his name. By this time I had graduated, of course. I was over at the West End Cafe, around midnight. He showed up and told me that the Duke Ellington festival that I was hoping to do on Duke's 75th birthday, was in fact going to start in two hours -- and that I was doing it, that I had to raise money. We had to pay off a note of $36,000 by Friday, and this was Sunday night already. Banking was not yet computerized, and transitions of funds revolved around 9am to 3pm. There were no pledge forms or phone calls; get the money here, we need it by Friday, or that's it. Messengers were coming up here; a lot of it was based on certified checks. I sold some of my '78s at very high prices; a woman bought my copy of "Flamingo" -- by Herb Jeffries, with Duke, on Victor -- for $1500. We had the $36,000 by Wednesday night. Sharif was on at the time.
So the Ellington festival was a fundraiser, which is something I've always felt badly about. Someday we will eventually start to repeat festivals; the first two that come to mind are John Coltrane and Ellington. It seems logical that we might do so in September of '96, which would be Coltrane's 70th birthday, and no later than April of '99, which would be Ellington's centennial. There's so much more material now.
Not quite as desperate, but similar in that we didn't have forms or phone calls, was the 1976 fundraiser which paid for the transmitter; I did that one. Woody Allen gave $5000 by certified check -- a messenger showed up.
The third last ditch, save the station kind of thing, was the Technical Difficulties Festival in May of 1981. Usually with the amount pledged on the air, you're lucky if you get 70% of that. We raised 189% of what had been pledged on the air, which was over another $60,000. And that facilitated what has saved the station -- our transmitter is on the World Trade Center. Now we're trying to do it again, but this time inside the premises: buying a new console.
Are we known internationally?
Of course. Coverage of our station has been quite thorough on a number of continents. In Japan, there have been many reviews of the station and its legacy, more notably in Swing Journal. Jazz Journal and The Wire have written about us. In the 70s there was great coverage of the station in Downbeat. There were tremendous reviews of the Charlie Parker festival, the Coleman Hawkins festival, the Ornette Coleman festival, and the Thelonious Monk festival. There was some press coverage of the AACM festival. The Sidney Bechet festival received some rather prime time coverage. The festivals used to be better represented in the press.
What is the dynamic of our competition with WBGO?
Well, I don't think competition is necessary. The importance of WKCR can be explained in its own creed rather than in any comparative sense. We're singular -- unfortunately, perhaps, we're even unique. What we do that is singular is play the great names of jazz and the overlooked figures; we play their greatest recordings, their rarest recordings, and at times all of their recordings. These approaches to jazz presentation are in fact not mirrored anywhere else in the world. WKCR's importance is unchallenged by anyone who really likes jazz -- and knows, of course, of our existence.