Phil Ware’s jazz community rallies around him after stroke

On June 3 of last year, my friend Phil Ware suffered a stroke from a ruptured aneurysm that changed his life forever. Although he was fortunate to survive (50% of people with ruptured aneurysms do not survive the ambulance ride), the injury rendered him unable to use the right side of his body and severely damaged his speech and his comprehension.

Of course, such an event is a disaster for anyone, but to Phil, one of Ireland’s most respected jazz pianists, it seemed particularly cruel. Musicians who perform at a high level inevitably come to confuse their identity with their talent, and with all of his virtuosity gone in an instant, I know Phil has asked himself several times since his injury, “If I can’t anymore. play, who am I? ”Fortunately, over the past year and a half, his friends and fans have helped him answer this question.

With dyed blonde hair, various piercings and a thumb ring, Phil cut a dashing figure when he stepped onto the Irish jazz scene 20 years ago. Born in London in 1972, Phil was already a young jazz pianist highly regarded on the British scene – twice finalist in the prestigious Young Jazz Musician of the Year competition – before deciding to settle in Dublin.

“To think that Phil might never play again was heartbreaking”

“The stage immediately benefited from his presence,” recalls bassist Ronan Guilfoyle, director of the Jazz Performance program at the University of Dublin, “because jazz pianists really good, swinging, with great technique and good sound, weren’t too thick on the floor. He became a favorite of many musicians, especially singers, for whom he had a special affinity.

One of those singers, who would become Phil’s close friend and confidant, was jazz singer Honor Heffernan. “We met at a Louis Stewart concert at the Shelbourne Hotel,” Heffernan explains, “and we hit it off immediately. When I started working with Phil, I quickly realized he had a wonderful understanding of how to accompany a singer. I loved singing with him and he always pushed me to be braver and take risks.

Phil took to Dublin as much as Dublin took to him. Together with bassist Dave Redmond and drummer Kevin Brady, he formed what would become the nation’s leading piano trio and their debut album, In Our Own Time (2007), received widespread acclaim. Phil’s trio were also a first call for visiting musicians, and to his delight they also found themselves returning to London regularly, especially to perform with famous jazz singer Ian Shaw. In 2016, Phil received the Music Network sponsored Artist-in-Residence position at the Triskel Arts Center in Cork, starting an association with Triskel’s director, Tony Sheehan, which grew into a lasting friendship.

Along with bassist Dave Redmond and drummer Kevin Brady, Phil Ware formed what would become the nation’s leading piano trio.

“Phil had come of age as a player,” Sheehan explains, “and he had a unique talent for creating those really lovely moments that stay with you long after the gig is over. He had delicacy in his style and true virtuosity and as a conductor he loved working with other musicians so he was a natural fit.

Usually when people suffer from life-changing brain damage, there is a close family – partners, siblings, children – to support them and make crucial decisions about treatment, but with Phil there was a vacuum. . With both parents dead and half-sister Alison stranded in the UK by the pandemic, Phil was effectively alone in the world. Heffernan, who Phil had referred to as his next of kin, realized that Phil needed family and, to his credit, didn’t hesitate to step in and stand up for his friend.

“When I heard he had had a stroke,” Heffernan says, “I was devastated. I really didn’t want to believe what I was hearing. The thought that Phil might never play again was heartbreaking. The first time I saw him in the Mater, so stunned and upset, I was determined to support him until the end.

As word spread throughout the wider jazz community, friends and fans of Phil began to ask how they could help, so with Heffernan and Brady, and with expert advice from accountant Gaby Smyth and neurologist Prof Colin Doherty of Trinity College and St James’s Hospital. , we created the Phil Ware Trust. Like most jazz musicians, Phil didn’t have a lot of savings or assets, and Professor Doherty indicated that while his immediate care would be covered by the health care system, he would ultimately need substantial resources to to support his continuing rehabilitation and to help him in the future.

Phil’s progress in the year and a half since his injury has been remarkable

It has been one of the most positive and affirming aspects of Phil’s journey since his injury that his care has always been excellent and always free. From emergency admission at Mater Hospital to life-saving surgery at Beaumont Hospital, expert rehabilitation at Royal Hospital Donnybrook and now ongoing rehabilitation at Orwell Healthcare in Rathgar, no one has ever asked who paid before giving Phil the highest standard. of care.

“Phil’s journey is a great example of a comprehensive acute care and rehabilitation program that rivals anything he would have received anywhere in the world; and unlike other countries that offer this level of service, it didn’t have to pay a dime for it. The term ‘Third World health care system’ is often used to refer to the Irish health care system, “says Prof. Doherty,” but that is an insult to the fabulous, dedicated and compassionate staff of Irish hospitals and community institutions ” .

Phil’s progress over the past year and a half since his injury has been remarkable – now he can walk with a stick, his speech continues to improve, and his sense of humor and sense of himself have grown stronger. over the months – but it’s far from certain that he will ever perform again, and while we all hope he can one day live on his own, it will require the kind of resources few musicians do. jazz have access. But the response to the fund is a measure of the esteem in which Phil is held by the Irish jazz community.

Beautiful contributions have come from friends of Phil, including director Neil Jordan, and supporting organizations such as the Improvised Music Company and Jazz Ireland, as well as countless small donations from his fellow musicians, many of whom could barely afford pay rent in the past. year. In July, a group of its former students, led by singer Aleka Potinga, organized an online benefit, led by singer Mary Coughlan, and last month, staff and students of DCU’s jazz program hosted an football tournament to raise money for the fund. .

When we told Phil what we were planning his reaction was disbelief

“The outpouring of love and support for Phil has been truly inspiring,” Heffernan said. “He knows all of this and is really moved by it, just like me. It’s great to know that we are not alone on this journey.”

Tony Sheehan was one of the first to contact the trust seeking help, and with Triskel Christchurch – one of the nation’s premier venues for jazz and creative music – at his disposal, Sheehan offered a benefit concert all -star. It’s been a tough year and a half for live music and we’ve been patiently waiting to be allowed to put on a live concert, but on December 11th some of Phil’s closest musician friends will finally perform what appears to be the event. jazz of the year. Led by Heffernan and members of Phil’s own trio, the evening will feature renowned saxophonist Richie Buckley, his cousin guitarist Hugh Buckley and two of Cork’s brightest jazz stars, trombonist Paul Dunlea and pianist Cormac McCarthy .

When we told Phil what we were planning, his reaction was disbelief. He still finds it hard to believe that someone cares, but his friends keep proving him wrong. And as much as the excellent care Phil has received from his medical and rehabilitation teams, is knowing that his musical family is always with him – wanting him, visiting him, calling him by video, giving him support. food and cigarettes – which prompted him to continue working on his rehab, getting better and hopefully one day putting his magical hands back on a piano.

To purchase tickets for A Night For Phil, see triskelartscentre.ie

To donate to the Fund for Phil, visit thefundforphil.com

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