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Phil Elwood: 1926-2006
Phil Elwood

Born: March 19, 1926 in Berkeley, CA
Died: January 10, 2006 in Berkeley, CA

Bay Area jazz writer and radio host

by Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2006 Todd S. Jenkins

Longtime San Francisco Bay Area jazz and blues critic Phil Elwood died of heart failure on Tuesday, January 10th, 2006. He was 79 years old. Elwood's death came barely a month after the passing of his wife, Audrey, from cancer.

Elwood died in his hometown of Berkeley, where he was born on March 19th, 1926. His father was an agriculture professor at UC Berkeley. His first exposure to jazz came from a family friend, Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange, who played young Philip a Louis Armstrong record. Not long thereafter Elwood heard Count Basie performing live in Oakland, and from that point he knew the path his life would take. He used his paper-route money to hit local thrift stores and record shops, scrounging for jazz 78s. Many of those now-classic recordings remained in his enormous basement record collection up until his passing.

In the early 1940s, while still in high school, Elwood joined the ranks of inveterate jazz collectors and continued to build upon his knowledge and love of the music. He also began subbing as a DJ at local jazz radio stations. While serving in the U.S. Navy he wrote record reviews for a service newsletter, and contributed articles to record-collector magazines in the U.S. and abroad. Following his military service, Elwood obtained his master's degree in history at Stanford and took up his principal career, as an American history teacher at local high schools and colleges. Beginning in the 1970s, Elwood also taught a popular jazz history course at Oakland's Laney College.

In 1952 Elwood joined the staff of radio station KPFA in Berkeley, where he presented fine jazz programming for more than four decades, finally retiring in 1996. His "Jazz Archive" was one of the first jazz programs on the then-fledgling FM radio. His shows were later syndicated on New York's WBAI and other Radio Pacifica-associated stations. He moved into print media in 1965, covering the jazz beat for the San Francisco Examiner. Elwood became one of America's most respected jazz critics, acknowledged nationwide for his encyclopedic knowledge and insight. In 2002, two years after the Examiner merged with the Chronicle, Elwood shocked the Bay Area by taking his leave from the paper. It didn't take long for him to cross another boundary, writing a regular column for the website. He continued in that position up until his hospitalization a week prior to his death.

In 2002 Elwood received the SFJAZZ Beacon Award for his lifetime contributions to jazz, and was honored with a tribute concert. He penned liner notes for more than one hundred LPs and CDs, and wrote for a number of jazz magazines over the years. Besides his obvious love for jazz and blues, Elwood encouraged the careers of such disparate musicians as comedian Tom Lehrer and Bruce Springsteen.

Phil Elwood is survived by his sons, Peter and Joshua of Berkeley, and Benjamin of St. Paul, Minn.; daughter Lis of Sierra City; and six grandchildren. invites readers to contribute their reminiscences of Phil Elwood; please contact editor Wayne Saroyan at

Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.


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