Election Section

Phil Elwood, 1926-2006 By KEN BULLOCK Special to the Planet

Friday January 13, 2006

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.