THE FIRST THING was when the people at Charlie's Georgetown noticed the time-yellowed photos in the men's lounge.
The attendant was a beautifully dressed old man whom they knew only as Mr. Phillips.
Oh yes, he said, that picture, that's King Oliver's band, and there I am with my horn. Yes, and this one is Bill Young's band, and there's his son Lester on sax, and that's me there, and here's another band I was in, with that young girl singer, that one, yeah, Lena Horne . . .
He is Phil Phillips, and he is 74, and now he plays a short gig Mondays at Charlie's.
"I'm good for three or four choruses now," he said the other night. "I could do 25 back then, but I don't work at it anymore, the mouth gets tired, the muscles."
He's not in the jazz encyclopedias himself, but he knows the ones who were, he was there with them. He grew up with the great Lester Young, played cornet alongside Harry James in Harry's father's band. Harry was 14 at the time. He played with Jimmy Archey, an old Oliver man who was in France with Mezz Mezzrow and Bob Wilbur and recorded with Sidney Bechet, a little guy so short he had to hold his trombone horizontally when he played the low notes. Phillips speaks often of "Louis" -- of course Louis Armstrong -- who started with King Oliver, coming on as second cornet in July 1922. Phillips joined Oliver in 1932 for two years, but that was after the great years, after the recording sessions stopped and Oliver was touring the South and Midwest, his health broken.
"I can play Dixieland," Phillips said in one of those unconscious old-pro understatements so enormous that you just nod and don't realize until you write it down, "but I'm a big-band man. I do swing."
That explains a lot. Jazz scholar Frank Driggs, who remembers meeting Phillips, commented that "he was a lead trumpet player, not a soloist, and there wasn't much for his generation when the business folded in the late '50s. They didn't have the feel for modern jazz or rock 'n' roll or the New Orleans reconstructions. They didn't fit in."
Phil Phillips, born in Warren, Ark., played cornet at school. His mother was organist in the church choir, and he sang there, and played his horn, and when he was 19 he went on the road with his friend Lester in the Young Family band, touring vaudeville houses in the Dakotas, Kansas and Nebraska. Bill Young, a Tuskegee graduate who was a master of many instruments, treated him like a son.
"Where I come from they were mean to black men. My father knew nothing but that way of life. But I took off."
He joined the Bostonians, then King Oliver, then Lucky Millinder and a bunch of other groups.
"A neighbor woman used to hear me doing my scales, and she said, 'You be as old as I am before you learn that thing.' Then I saw her in Omaha, and she looked at me and my friend and said, 'I know you're from Arkansas because you both wear the same suit.' Well, we invited her over to hear King Oliver, and she saw the whole band had that same suit on. 'You're with King Oliver!' she said." He smiled a remembering smile.
When the big-band era died he was left suddenly with nothing, after years of modest prosperity. He moved to Washington and took a job with the Bureau of Engraving as a storeroom clerk, retiring after 18 years. He still did gigs occasionally when the better bands came through town. Just recently he had worked at Elan and was brought out to play a few times.
"I played with Louis at the Music Hall at 9th and V. He broke up his big band and only had six pieces then. It was those singing groups that came in, the Larks and the Swallows and the Buzzards and all like that, they got all the girls screaming. Next thing I knew, four pieces in RFK Stadium were drawing 100,000 people."
He lives quietly by himself in the District. ("I got no bad habits, I didn't want to go nowhere. The horn was my heart.") Sometimes when he plays he does a vocal, "but not like Louis, I sing it like me." He likes the quiet numbers. "Sweet Lorraine." "Summertime."
He played "Sweet Lorraine" the other night with Harold Kaufman's All-Stars at Charlie's Georgetown. Maybe all the notes didn't come through the way he heard them in his head, but he knew the moves, all right. Then he went back to his chair under the old photos, with the bottles of perfume and the towels and the little dish of candies and the bowl full of dollar bills.