What: Phil Dwyer Trio (and guests)
Where: Hermann’s Jazz Club
When: Tonight, 8 p.m.
Admission: $ 20. To reserve, dial 250-388-9166
After three decades of jazz excellence, saxophonist Phil Dwyer just wants to give back to the little guy.
So he trades his saxophone for a lawyer dress.
In September, the 48-year-old Qualicum Beach musician begins his law studies at the University of New Brunswick. Before moving with his wife to Fredericton, Dwyer will perform a trio of farewell concerts, including one tonight at Hermann’s Jazz Club.
“I felt I really needed a challenge. And I felt like I was at a point in my life where I could probably still have the mental energy and the ability to take [law school] on, ”he said.
Dwyer will not give up the music. However, concerts will be on the back burner for now. After becoming a lawyer, he hopes to help underdogs, perhaps those struggling with mental health issues or people of Indigenous descent.
“I have had my own experiences with the mental health system,” added the musician, who in 2001 was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and subsequently overcame drug and alcohol problems.
The Juno Award-winning Dwyer occupies an important place on the Canadian jazz scene. A largely self-taught prodigy, he played professionally in Vancouver at age 16. He has performed with greats like Philly Joe Jones, Art Blakey, Kenny Wheeler and Aretha Franklin. Recently, he was named to the Order of Canada for his contributions to jazz as a performer, producer, composer and educator.
Dwyer got the top marks when he wrote the LSAT. However, his applications to Canadian law schools were met with numerous refusals.
It was because he had never pursued his studies beyond high school. Once his musical career launched, Dwyer never cared about college.
It was initially rejected by the law school of the University of New Brunswick. Dwyer then persuaded the administration to consider his request.
“I don’t know if I begged. But I begged, ”he said with a laugh.
It seems the university took Dwyer’s high-level musical resume more seriously the second time around. His achievements as a self-taught include co-founding a saxophone company, Sea Wind Musical Instruments, and the Juno Prize in 1994 and 2012. He is also an educator, having run a group camp – the Phil Dwyer Academy of Music and Culinary. Arts – at Qualicum Beach for nine seasons.
Going from music to law can seem like a leap. Still, Dwyer says there is more overlap than you might think. Becoming a jazzman means discovering the history of music, which is not so different from studying law. Both areas require precise thinking and the ability to assimilate information quickly.
Additionally, Dwyer has always had a keen interest in politics and social justice issues.
“It’s kind of a natural progression,” he said.
He comes from a family of lawyers. Dwyer’s sister is a Vancouver lawyer specializing in First Nations issues. Two cousins - one in Australia and one in Scotland – recently retired from legal careers. Another cousin has just completed his law studies at the University of British Columbia.
At 17, Dwyer received a scholarship from the Canada Council for the Arts to study music with prominent New York musicians. Around this time he was introduced to drugs. In 2012, Dwyer told the Ottawa Citizen that he abused drugs and alcohol from 1983 to 2008, when he finally gave up his bad habits.
Today, Dwyer admits he used to self-medicate to deal with mental health issues. Once he understood this, he was able to recover.
“Nothing that I’m doing now would be possible remotely if I hadn’t been able to deal with these issues,” he said.
In addition to giving back as a lawyer, Dwyer hopes his new career delivers the kind of stable paycheck most musicians can only dream of.
“Certainly, after 30 years of activity as an independent jazz musician, any measure of financial security would be welcome. “
Note: The Phil Dwyer Trio also performs at the Sylvan United Church in Mill Bay on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and at the Filberg Festival on August 2.