KPFA honors Phil Elwood, jazz critic, pioneering disc jockey

Phil Elwood on the job at KPFA. The station dedicates the Phil Elwood Music Library on Saturday, before airing a documentary about his legacy at 2 p.m.
Phil Elwood on the job at KPFA. The station will dedicate the Phil Elwood Music Library on Saturday, before airing a documentary about his legacy at 2 p.m.

FM radio was an obscure broadcasting technology when Phil Elwood started sending out jazz over the airwaves on KPFA, a station that was just three years old when he came on board in 1952.

On Saturday afternoon the station honors one of its foundational voices when the Phil Elwood Music Library is dedicated to the late disc jockey before an 80-minute radio documentary about Elwood’s legacy airs at 2 p.m. It’s a labor of love spearheaded by Elwood’s son, Berkeley resident Josh Elwood, who has been taking care of his father’s vast archive of interviews, articles and broadcasts. Elwood died at the age of 79 in January 2006, just one month after his wife Audrey.

A radio pioneer, Elwood was one of the first people to spin jazz records on an FM station when he started his “Jazz Archive” program on KPFA in 1952, a weekly show that ran until 1996. The son of UC Berkeley agriculture professor Clifford Franklin Elwood, he was a proud Berkeleyan who graduated from Berkeley High in 1943. He earned a history degree from Cal, served in the Navy, and spent several decades teaching history at Albany High (the great jazz singer Denise Perrier was one of his students).

Elwood reached his widest audience when he started writing reviews for the San Francisco Examiner in 1965. He plunged into the job covering jazz and cabaret, comedy and the burgeoning Bay Area rock scene, writing 21 reviews in his first two months (a run that concluded with an afternoon Beatles show at the Cow Palace and Judy Garland at the Circle Star Theater in San Carlos that evening). After the Examiner and Chronicle merged he wrote for the Chronicle for several years, and retired in 2002 (while continuing to write for the website JazzWest.com).


The KPFA documentary on Elwood talks about his influence on jazz radio and includes several long excerpts from interviews he recorded with musicians. He catches Louis Armstrong in a reflective mood after a 1963 concert at the Fairmont, playing him his first recordings with King Oliver from the original 78s. Satchmo talks about making those 1923 records in the pre-electronic days, with all the musicians array around a large acoustic horn (like on a Victrola).

Chris Strachwitz talks about hearing Elwood in 1953 after transferring to UC Berkeley, and bringing him in as emcee for a Cal concert by New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis he helped produce at Wheeler Auditorium. In another long excerpt, Elwood interviews Charles Mingus in 1967, a prickly conversation that quickly turns into a long discussion about unpaid royalties and publishing rights.

Jesse “Chuy” Varela, music director at KCSM (91.1 FM), got his start as an engineer at KPFA in the early 1980s “thanks to Jim Bennett, who trained me as a board op,” he says. “I started with Phil around 1982 engineering his Sunday morning show, ‘The Jazz and Blues Review.’ I learned so much. He spun 78s, LPs, cassettes, and later CDs, and I had to make it all flow along with his commentary. From Jelly Roll Morton to Charles Mingus it was trad to modern. At the time, Phil was the jazz and pop critic for the SF Examiner and he would talk about the shows he had written about as well as new releases he had reviewed. I always appreciated how he analyzed jazz in a historical context. If he spoke about Monk, he’d mention James P. Johnson and the influences of New York City stride piano. If he spoke of Louis Armstrong, he’d mention King Oliver.”

When this reporter moved up to Berkeley in 1996 and started covering jazz for the East Bay Express, Elwood was a constant presence at Yoshi’s and San Francisco Jazz Festival events. He became a friend who encouraged my efforts, which was a kick as I’d grown up reading his album liner notes. In his last years we’d often run into each other walking on the Albany Bulb, and he clearly missed the hustle and bustle of reviewing shows. Phil was a consummate newspaperman, and we won’t see his like again.

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