Phil Elwood, who covered jazz, rock, blues and comedy for the San Francisco Examiner and later the Chronicle, died Tuesday (Jan. 10) of heart failure, only four weeks after the death of his beloved wife, Audrey, according to an obit in the Chron. He was 79. Rock musician Huey Lewis said, “Talk about old school. … He was a music lover. Imagine that. He actually loved the music. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” Said jazz great Jon Hendricks, “Phil was the quintessential jazz critic … Most jazz critics love the music, but Phil knew the music as well as loved it.

SF Press Club News

3 Comments

  1. Phil was a teacher’s teacher with a big heart. He taught innumerable lessons about the music & musicians, both in and outside of his classes. As his engineer for 4 years on KPFA, he showed me what it takes to translate a passion for jazz into a great radio broadcast. His encyclopedic knowledge of the music from 60 years first hand experience is legend and is now irreplaceable. Being in the book business myself I was always trying to talk him into doing a book of his own; alas he preferred to let his volumes of writing for the EX, various periodicals and liner notes stand as his literary testament. I’ll never forget the many evenings of music and commentary at Yoshi’s, Kimballs, the SF Blues Festival and other venues I experienced through his generosity and friendship. Perhaps most of all, the Monterey Jazz Festival just won’t be the same without his gregarious presence, astute comments and countless anecdotes.
    We loved him madly!

  2. From the Berkeley Daily Planet

    Phil Elwood, 1926-2006

    By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

    Noted jazz and popular music critic Phil Elwood, a life-long Berkeley resident, died Tuesday of heart failure at age 79, just a month after the death of his wife, Audrey.
    Elwood, San Francisco Examiner critic from 1965, until the Hearst paper merged with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000, from which he retired in 2002, also was a pioneer FM broadcaster, with his weekly “Jazz Archive” on KPFA from 1952 to 1996. His history of jazz classes on Monday nights at Laney College in Oakland filled in the background to the music for new generations of musicians, critics and fans.

    Elwood was hailed by musicians, fellow journalists and music fans alike. Eulogies came from a range of performers. Vocalist Jon Hendricks, emphasizing the range of Elwood’s musical and stylistic interests, called Elwood “the quintessential jazz critic.” Affectionate tributes also came from popular rock and R&B singers, such as Boz Scaggs and Huey Lewis.

    “Phil always served it to you straight,” singer Kim Nalley, proprietor of North Beach jazz spot Pearl’s, said in an E-mail. “I credit him with discovering me.”

    Elwood becoming her “constant proponent,” Nalley remembered, turning interviews into long sessions of listening to CDs and talking about jazz, before settling down to the journalistic business at hand.

    Elwood relished expressing his opinion on the spot, sometimes humming or scatting a snatch of a tune to illustrate his point. His interests not only extended straight-ahead jazz to the avant-garde, but also took in a whole spectrum of popular music. An amateur drummer, Elwood once recalled how an early interview with Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts became reversed, with the jazz-trained Stone bird-dogging the critic on the counter-rhythms of drummers of older generations Elwood had heard live.

    Credited with giving unknown Bruce Springsteen his first important review, Elwood also would proudly refer to the personal letters of thanks from Lawrence Welk, praising the originator of “Bubble Music” with “a remarkable knowledge of the American Songbook.”

    When Elwood retired from regular reviewing, he recalled his first weeks on the job, covering shows that ranged from Duke Ellington to musical satirist Tom Lehrer, bop drummer Art Blakey to the Mills Bros, and from singers Kay Starr and Lena Horne to “The Beatles at the Cow Palace in the afternoon and Judy Garland at the Circle Star that night.”

    Born on March 19, 1926, Elwood was raised in Berkeley. His father was professor of agriculture at UC Berkeley. As a teenager, he caught big band shows at Sweets Ballroom in Oakland, after his conversion to jazz when photographer Dorothea Lange played a Louis Armstrong record while Elwood was visiting her Berkeley home.

    An avid hunter for out-of-issue sides and 78s in his teens, what became a gargantuan record collection of legend and lore was kept in the basement of his house on The Alameda.

    Elwood continued to write about music on the website Jazz West after his retirement from newsprint. The San Francisco Jazz Festival honored him in 2002 with their Beacon Award and a tribute concert.

    Survivors include sons Peter and Joshua of Berkeley, Benjamin of St. Paul, Minn., daughter Lis of Sierra City, and six grandchildren. No services are planned at present.

  3. From the Oakland Tribune

    Editor remembers jazz critic Elwood

    BY LESLIE KATZ (AND WIRE REPORTS)

    Does anyone know more about jazz than Phil Elwood did?

    Elwood, a Berkeley native who died Tuesday of heart failure at 79, was beloved by fans of good music. Some of us were lucky enough to know the critic from more than his countless nightlife reviews, which ran in the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle from the mid-1960s until 2002.

    After he retired from the Chronicle, he began writing for Jazzwest, a Web site devoted to Bay Area jazz. But he also wrote a handful of freelance reviews for the “new” San Francisco Examiner, where I was his editor in 2002 and ’03.

    Of course, it was an honor to be reading the work of such an esteemed expert in his field. But it was more thrilling to hear the guy’s stories. His reviews never simply listed what the musicians played; they were mini-history lessons wrapped up with living references — Elwood’s own, amazing memories.

    His enthusiasm was infectious. Decades before I worked with him, I was one of the many people who took his jazz class at Laney College. A picture of him, pawing his cherished albums and lovingly playing them on his old-fashioned phonograph, still burns in my mind.

    In that little classroom, he revealed the brilliance of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and taught me who Bix Beiderbecke was. I know he did the same for multitudes of readers and music lovers.

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