Without question, Phil Dwyer was the only first-year law student at the University of New Brunswick in 2014 sporting an Order of Canada pin in his lapel. Odds are strong he was also the only frosh who could claim a 30-year career as one of Canada’s most in-demand jazz musicians. Or that his other option for a mid-life career shift might have seen him in a chef’s apron, rather than a lawyer’s robes.
By 2004, Dwyer had already earned his spurs as a sax player, pianist, composer and university-level teacher in Toronto, when he decided to move his family to his Vancouver Island home turf. For the next 10 years, he plied the freelancer’s trade from the mid-island town of Qualicum Beach, which involved extensive travel to gigs in Vancouver and elsewhere. By his mid-40s, “the wear and tear of being on the road, not eating that well, and becoming more and more concerned about my carbon footprint” had begun making that lifestyle less appealing.
“I was looking 30 years down the road and asking myself if this was really what I wanted to be doing for another 30 years. The answer was a resounding no,” he admitted. “Although I hadn’t lost my love of playing music, the zest for doing it as a vocation had sort of dissipated.”
As a passionate cook and gardener, Dwyer had occasionally entertained a “fleeting fantasy” of opening a restaurant. He had even established a summer music camp for high school students, which grew into what’s known as the Phil Dwyer Academy of Musical and Culinary Arts.
“Originally, the camp was a make-work project for me when I moved back here to Qualicum, because I was looking for ways that I could stay at home and work, rather than spending all my time in airports and hotels,” he said. “So, I invented this school. There was no real need for another summer music camp, but we did it quite differently, in that we ran the camp out of our house and we had a very low student-to-teacher ratio.”
The culinary aspect arose from a realization that most of the music students had no idea how to rustle up their own grub and relied on fast food outlets to sustain themselves.
“A lot of them didn’t know thing one about cooking, which was a big passion of mine,” Dwyer recalled. “I thought, well, I’m going to have this camp where we’ll do music in the morning and music in the afternoon, but over the lunch hour, I will teach the students how to make different dishes.”
Those dishes ran the gamut from homemade pasta to ceviche and beyond. (But not one of his own signature dishes, prawn and chanterelle risotto.)
“We taught them how to roll sushi. We cooked pizzas on barbecues. I taught them how to make curry, how to make a proper omelette, how to make spaghetti sauce. We did teach them risotto, but it wasn’t chanterelle and shrimp,” he said.
Still, when it came timeto diversify his resume, Dwyer passed on the idea of opening a restaurant.
“The only other thing I ever seriously thought about doing was going into law,” he said.
Despite not having an undergraduate degree, Dwyer did well on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and was accepted to the Fredericton law faculty at the age of 48. “UNB was a great fit, because it’s quite a small school and Maritimers being legendarily friendly, welcoming people, that was great. I lived in Fredericton for two years, got a great education and met lots of nice people.”
Dwyer spent his student summers in Toronto, playing music and doing legal work for social activist Peter Rosenthal, whom he describes as “quite an interesting fellow who likes to sue the Toronto Police Force.” After articling and passing the requisite bar exams, Dwyer is now a fully-fledged lawyer, still learning to juggle the demands of his new career with those of his side gig as a musician.
“Being a freelancer, you get used to saying yes to everything, and then figuring out how you’re going to wedge it all into your schedule. But your schedule is pretty flexible, so you’re able to kind of make it work,” he said.
“Now I have somewhere between 45 to 55 hours a week that are already spoken for. That’s been a bit of a hard adjustment to make, but I’m slowly figuring it out and getting back some equilibrium.”
When Phil Dwyer, C.M., J.D. returns to the Yukon Arts Centre stage this week, it will be as a decorated and widely-respected jazz musician, not as a relatively new family lawyer. Joining him in the Phil Dwyer Trio will be two former students and long-time collaborators, bassist Conrad Good and drummer Joe Poole.
Dwyer has performed in Whitehorse several times, but his appearance at the Jazz on the Wing concert on Sunday, Nov. 3 comes almost 30 years after he first came to the Yukon with singer Holly Cole to play the Frostbite Music Festival in 1990.
“I remember my cousin (the late MLA Steve Cardiff) running around like a maniac, trying to keep the heat on in that airport hangar where the concert was held,” he recalled nostalgically.
For more information, go to JazzYukon.ca