Some arrive on Maui with full pockets and pleasant prospects. A few come with a job in hand. Others fall precipitously in love with the island and do what they can until they can do what they want. Phil Smith pays the bills by selling real estate. That's not who he is or what he wants to do.
It was early afternoon. It was hot outside; cool inside. Filtered sunlight bathed the interior of Charley's with a lyrical glow - a sweet-singing clarinet off to the side of a insistent brass section. The clarinet slides into a low glissando. Phil charms a waitress while ordering a nonalcoholic concoction he devised to set drinkers at ease when he began 12-stepping his way through a lifestyle notoriously laced with alcohol and other indulgences.
Since age 11, Phil has been a professional musician. His easy grin says it's been a good life. His rumpled mug speaks eloquently of late nights, smokey rooms, recording studios and one-night stands making sonic love on a bandstand or street corner.
"We were round pegs in a square hole," he said about his childhood on a cotton farm in Arkansas. His family was Roman Catholic in the Baptist Bible Belt, lovers of jazz in a land of country and western and Delta blues. "Dad brought home this clarinet. 'Learn to play it,' he said."
Phil was 8. Three years later, he and two brothers formed a group that played talent shows, beauty pageants, service clubs, anywhere there was an audience and a few bucks for pay. He won music scholarships to Memphis State University in 1962 and in 1964 to the Berklee College of Music, "the world's foremost institute for the study of jazz and modern American music." At the Boston school he honed his chops with daily three-hour practice sessions and the tutelage of woodwind master Joe Viola.
Over waitress-recommended burgers, the story comes out in bits and pieces, often punctuated by a rim-shot joke. Phil's the kind of jokester who bangs quips out of left field and waits for the listener to get it - five decades of doing what it takes to be a jazzman has given him plenty of material.
Doing what it takes means a day job. Paying the bills making music is a dream. Doing it on Maui is the proverbial brass ring. Phil's a realist but his double-love - Maui and music - makes the effort paramount. Anything is possible. He and a ragtag group once earned $1,200 in 15 minutes busking in San Francisco after he spent the day working "as one of the few straight hair stylists in the city."
He was also a sideman on Aretha Franklin's "R-E-S-P-E-C-T," recorded in Muscle Shoals, Ala., for producers Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd. Don't recognize the names? Try Stevie Wonder, Michael Bloomfield, Wilson Pickett or Johnny Mathis, who said "just play the chart. People are expecting a certain sound."
Then there was author Danielle Steele, who said "Phil Smith and his Gentlemen of Jazz have so much class and my guests are always entertained so magnificently by their music."
Phil arrived on Maui in 2011 with the idea of finding a venue that would allow him to continue the eight-year run his Gentlemen of Jazz enjoyed at the Uva Trattoria in Napa, Calif. "A quartet, maybe, or a trio. I couldn't even book a duo," he said.
His ultimate dream is fronting a band in a fine-dining establishment featuring "ear-friendly music and touch-dancing, some place where we can build an audience. Maybe regular late-Sunday afternoon sessions. I know there is a market for that."
For now, Phil has teamed up with bass player Danny M, whose discography runs into single-spaced pages. Danny plays upright, five-string fretless and five-string fretted. With Phil's inventory of saxophones, clarinet, flute and mellow baritone singing, the duo has the ability and versatility - any style, any place - to keep an audience foot-tapping and grinning. Take it from me. I've heard Phil play and sing often enough - live and on recordings. There's absolutely no risk to my credibility. Just ask any number of local professionals, including Willie K.
Need music? Call Phil at (808) 269-2611 or email email@example.com. And, yeh, he does island songs, all with the respect and class they deserve.
Phil compliments the waitress on her menu recommendation, slurps up the last of his drink and gets ready to head back into a brassy day, trailing the echo of a sassy clarinet. He's just doing what he can until he can do what he loves.
* Ron Youngblood is a retired editor and staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.