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After 30 years playing jazz, Phil Dwyer is going to law school

Updated March 7, 2014

After more than 30 years as a jazz musician and many awards including the Order of Canada, Phil Dwyer is completely changing direction.

Dwyer is going to become a lawyer. He revealed that during a wide-ranging workshop at at Les Brasseurs du Temps (BDT) on March 2, in which he also discussed saxophone technique, made the audience laugh with his stories, explained what he had learned from playing with musicians around the world, and described and demonstrated his new saxophone line.

The 48-year-old Juno-award-winner told the audience that he had been accepted into the law program at the University of New Brunswick and would be starting this fall.

Dwyer was clearly looking forward to the prospect, joking about enjoying reading law texts on the subway. His legal interests don't overlap with his musical ones. Instead, they include “bleeding-heart liberal social issues”: public interest law and social policy. With his own experience with mental health issues, he said he wanted to give those with mental health problems more effective legal representation.

He said he had scored in the top 10% in North America in his LSAT results, but had been turned down by law school after law school because of his age and lack of a university degree. “You know how many people apply to law school? You know many 48-year-old bipolar jazz musicians get into law school? Oddly enough, they're not beating the door down.”

That included UNB, until he told them, “No, no. You can't. Because they hadn't even really looked at my application and they were just turning me down because I was too old and not educated enough. And I said, 'No, I don't accept that.' ”

A lot of the times in my musical career, I was only doing something that I really loved 20% of the time, and the other 80% I was doing stuff that I had to do because that was what I did for a living.
– Phil Dwyer

“I said, 'You look at my application and then you can tell me why you're not going to let me in.' And then the next day I got a call from the dean, saying 'We're really sorry. We'd love you to come to our school.' ”

Dwyer said he decided to go to law school now because “there's a limited period of time when I'm going to be able to pull this off and so I just kind of jumped on it. Fortunately I managed to fight through.”

But he's not disappearing from the jazz scene: he said he would continue to perform part-time, and continue his new saxophone production business. “How I see music, looking ahead, is something that's going to be a sacred thing that I have to do.”

He said he knows many doctors and lawyers and other professionals who still have a lot of time to play music, and “when they get to play music, it's like the best thing they get to do.”

“It's great to do something that you really love, but a lot of the times in my musical career, I was only doing something that I really loved 20% of the time, and the other 80% I was doing stuff that I had to do because that was what I did for a living.”

He had earlier mentioned how much he had enjoyed his gigs in Toronto that week, playing with pianist Don Thompson, guitarist Ted Quinlan, and the Adrean Farrugia Quintet, among others. “If I thought going into a legal career meant that I could never do that again, I couldn't do it. It's too important to me.”

“But if going into a legal career means that I don't have to play at some corporate function or write a chart for some random gig that doesn't really ... I'm a professional, right? So if somebody hires me for something, I'm going to deliver the best possible product that I can, every time. But it doesn't mean that it's something I'm doing because I love it. It's something that I'm doing because I'm getting paid for it.”

“But I always had these other interests that were really, really important to me and I always felt that I was destined to do something else other than music.”

Looking for one new sax - coming home with 100

One reason why Dwyer was in Gatineau was to demonstrate a new line of saxophones which Sea Wind Musical Instruments is assembling and distributing: the Phil Dwyer Edition Saxophones. In response to a question from the audience, he described how he and his partner, Claudio Fantinato, started the business because Dwyer wanted to get a touring version of his vintage late 50s Selmer Super Balance Action tenor saxophone.

He'd got the sax in a trade in 1987, and played more than 5000 gigs with it. But as its value increased, he was more and more loath to take it on the road. But to buy an equal sax would have been prohibitively expensive. So Fantinato, who is an instrument technician and musician, suggested going to Taiwan: visiting instrument factories there, finding a body that sounded right to Dwyer, and then building the saxophone from scratch. The next day, they bought their tickets.

Even with airfare and hotels, that turned out to be thousands of dollars less expensive than finding an equivalent vintage Selmer. Through a broker, they toured six or seven different factories, where Dwyer tried 35 tenors. And finally they found an equivalent-sounding horn: from comparing recordings of Dwyer playing both horns, they couldn't tell which was which.

But we thought the horns were so good, people would buy them. And it turns out we were actually right: people are buying them.
– Phil Dwyer

Using that body, they requested custom features, including a Haida-inspired design engraved on the bell designed by a carver from Haida Gwaii. They were so impressed with the resulting alto and tenor prototypes – “these horns are killing! Let's go for it!” – that they decided to start up a company to sell them.

In April, 2013, parts for 100 saxophones arrived, a big drain on their bank accounts. “But we thought the horns were so good, people would buy them. And it turns out we were actually right: people are buying them.”

Fantinato builds the saxes on Vancouver Island, and “he gets them playing to where he thinks it's really great. And he can tell. And then I go over and I play the horn for a while and if there's anything that I think just needs a little tweaking, he'll do that on the spot. And then once we've got it really, really playing great, I make a video of me playing that horn, (say) serial number 48. I say, 'Hi, Phil here. Congratulations! You bought serial number 48, and this is what it sounds like!' ”

Lessons learned in a long career, so far

Dwyer spent most of the BDT workshop providing verbal and musical reminiscences of his career so far, as well as discussing more technical issues like saxophone breathing techniques and embouchure. He answered numerous questions from audience members, who were intent and involved throughout.

He started playing professionally at age 15, joined the musicians' union at 17, and has spent more than 30 years making a “half-way living” as a musician. He began with a short clip of him playing in a loft in New York City in 1985, and talked about how he learned intuitively from just watching saxophonist Steve Grossman play, and more formally from Dave Liebman – as well as getting some good advice from Art Blakey about when to stop playing.

If I'm playing with Ed Bickert and someone plays a wrong chord, I know who it is!
– Phil Dwyer

From there, he moved back to BC and a very successful several years recording and touring in the Hugh Fraser Quintet. Then he moved to Toronto, after York University offered him a part-time teaching job – when he was still only 22 or 23. He talked about the benefit of playing in Toronto with great musicians like trumpeter Kenny Wheeler or guitarist Ed Bickert: with them, he never doubted they were right if there was any confusion on the bandstand. “If I'm playing with Ed Bickert and someone plays a wrong chord, I know who it is!”

Needing to support a growing family, he got more session work and played in Latin, R&B, and pop groups, which he said improved his finesse. It also made him more adaptable and more able to take direction – not imposing his own agenda, but instead serving the needs of that particular situation. And several of his R&B mentors reminded him that “not everything is a jazz gig”, and that complexity and bebop riffs weren't always appropriate.

He also started recording himself practicing, a practice he endorses, and critically acted as his own teacher reviewing his performances. He also talked at length about centering the pitch when playing a saxophone, and difference between the sounds of the Lester Young versus the Coleman Hawkins schools of saxophone.

Ten years ago, he started playing with classical musicians, which eventually led to his Juno-winning album, Changing Seasons, with violinist Mark Fewer. He said that gave him “new skills and a new appreciation for nuance and accuracy with my writing with respect to how detailed I was with dynamics and the expressive markings and all of that [in a score]. Because I realized that, whereas most of the jazz and commercial players I was used to playing with would automatically add a lot of that stuff in by their experience and how they felt it should go, musicians on the classical side of things were not used to having that much leeway.”

He was very detailed in writing out exactly how he wanted each part in Changing Seasons to sound, and “consequently when we went to perform that, the first time we read through it even, it was very close to sounding how I wanted it to sound like. Whereas in the past, I was used to running it through and then spending the next two hours explaining to people what I really wanted them to do.”

He said he realized that those markings were a language available to him, and so working with chamber music groups has been “a huge help to me in getting a grasp on how to get that kind of detail into my writing."

Nothing musical left undone

Near the end of the workshop, Dwyer was asked if he had any gigs left undone. After 30 years, he said, he had wanted to make at least one record “that I really enjoy listening to”. And Changing Seasons, which he made with a 48-piece orchestra, was finally that.

“And then I thought, well, I should probably have at least one more of these that I like listening to. So I followed through on a project that I'd wanted to do for almost 30 years, which was to do a duo recording with Don Thompson (Look for the Silver Lining) [which is nominated for a 2014 Juno]. So we just went into the studio and basically fooled around and called tunes that we wanted to do. We just went in for a few hours and ended up with enough music for four CDs.”

Dwyer said he didn't feel he was leaving anything undone as he moved into the legal profession.

“I could say I'd love to play with Famous Person X, but I've played with Famous Person Y, and you get to the point [where] how famous somebody is doesn't really have much of an impact on how much you're going to enjoy it. You're going to ultimately get the most amount of pleasure playing with the people that you know the best.”

He mentioned his friend, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and a phone discussion they once had about their future plans. Dwyer was writing a jingle and playing at some bar mitzvahs, while she would soon be far more glamorously touring with Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, and Michael Brecker. He asked how it was, and she said, “You know ... it's the road. It's hard.”

“And that gave me a lot of insight ... I mean, how much better is it to play with Herbie Hancock than it is to play with Robi Botos? The increment is so small at that point, that you play with the people that are your friends and are your peers. When Herbie Hancock plays, he's playing with people he plays with all the time and that's part of the reason why it sounds so good. If he was just to sit in with a bunch of people he didn't know, he would still sound great, but it wouldn't have that same kind of thing that he does. That's why people like to play with people they know.”

In the last decade, he said, he'd got better at identifying what things he would get fulfilment from, rather than grabbing and trying to do everything and getting confused.

“I feel very fulfilled. Boy, if you didn't feel fulfilled after all the opportunities I've had, it would not be very gracious. You couldn't really ask for it to be any better.”

- Alayne McGregor

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