Salvation Army soldier Philip Smith trumpets for God by the little red kettle, when he can still find the chance. He loves the whole thing: The “Sharing is Caring” sign. The elderly veterans who tell him how Salvation Army volunteers handed out doughnuts during World War II. The young people who stand appreciatively as he hits the high notes in “O Holy Night.”
“You’re terrific,” one young man told him. “You should play music for a living.”
Smith nods and wishes him a Merry Christmas. He’s already got his day job: principal trumpet for the New York Philharmonic.
Christmas and the Salvation Army and music go together in the public mind, though few people know that the street-corner players are part of a long-established denomination that operates year-round. And although the army encourages even the musically challenged to play with reverential abandon, fewer know it has produced superb brass bands and musicians known for their light touch and lyricism.
Phil Smith’s great-great-grandmother, the story goes, was saved at the drum of a traveling Salvation Army band in England. His maternal grandparents were Salvation Army officers. His father’s parents were soldiers who provided social services to the sick, homeless and hungry, and persuaded men and women to become Christians.
The Army’s founder, a former Methodist minister named William Booth, used music to attract new disciples in the late 19th century. While working with alcoholics in London, Booth began writing new lyrics for popular drinking songs.
“He thought: ‘Why should the devil have all the good music?’ ” Phil Smith says. “Music can touch people spiritually in their souls.”
Many factories and mines had brass bands. “In England, your brass bands were the working man’s free time,” says Smith’s father, Derek, who was born and raised there.
So Booth started a Salvation Army band. Soon the brass band became the army’s pipe organ, accompanying its hymns with gusto. Parents taught their children brass instruments and encouraged them to join junior bands, where they learned Christian fundamentals along with the notes.
“The whole experience of growing up was putting Christ first and asking the Lord to guide you,” Phil Smith says.
The Smith family moved from England to Canada when Phil was 4 years old, and to New York three years later.
His father introduced him to music. “I taught him to play the cornet when he was about 7,” says the elder Smith, in a telephone interview from Clearwater, Fla. “I suppose I was strict. We always practiced together, and I made him stand. I told him he had to do more than play the black dots. To get the right feeling he had to learn the words of the hymns.”
During the Christmas season they played those hymns at the Salvation Army donation kettles.
“We played so much together I would nudge him when we were playing duets, and we would switch parts without people telling the difference,” says Smith, recalling that his son often improvised on familiar carols when playing with friends. “They had a bit of fun.”
At 18, Smith was invited to join the New York Staff band, one of three premier Salvation Army bands. The same year he was accepted to one of the best music schools in the country: The Juilliard School in New York City.
The competition was stiff, and the father remembers worrying about the son.
“He was not a pushy sort of a person,” unlike some of his Juilliard classmates, says the elder Smith. “But a lot of those boys never made it to the top.”
Smith considered leaving. “I said to my father, ‘I don’t know if I’m cut out for this business.’ My father said to me, ‘Just play.’ And he told me, ‘One day I see you as principal in the Philharmonic.’
“He was a tough old Brit who didn’t hand out compliments readily. But the moment I needed him, he was there.”
Smith branched out during the summers, growing his hair long and playing with a rock band on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, N.J. “We were playing and talking about Jesus and what he meant for us,” he recalls. His band was called Redemption.
At the same time, his classical career was moving forward. In 1974 he auditioned for the Chicago Symphony. Though determined to play as well as he could, he says he prayed for divine guidance: “I said, ‘Lord, if this is not the direction you want me to go in, don’t let it happen.’ ”
The Chicago Symphony hired him, and 3 1/2 years later it was on to the New York Philharmonic, where he became co-principal trumpet in 1978 and principal 10 years later.
Salvation Army soldier and trumpet player Michael Baker, 23, remembers hearing Smith perform back then.
“When I was 7, I used to play his solo album over and over again,” says Baker, now a graduate student at Juilliard. “It was golden, the most wonderful sound you can imagine. It turned me on to playing the trumpet.”
Initially he was afraid of Smith, who attended the same church, the Montclair Citadel in New Jersey. “We used to say he had ice water in his veins instead of blood because it was hard to get a reaction from him,” says Baker, who now considers Smith a good friend.
“When he plays his trumpet his main thought is: ‘Everything for the Lord.’ ”
Philharmonic principal trombonist Joseph Alessi has worked with Smith for 15 years. His “quiet, peaceful” manner can appear to be standoffishness at first, but it is not, Alessi says. Smith even has a little-known humorous side. Alessi recalled that once, after the spiky-haired violin soloist Nigel Kennedy performed with the Philharmonic, a playful Smith showed up for a solo rehearsal in a wig.
“He’s concerned about what is good and right, and that rubs off on all of us. Occasionally he makes references to Jesus, but it’s always a result of the other person instigating it. I think in some master classes he’s given, he’s been criticized for bringing up God, but it’s done in a very tasteful and enlightening way. He’s not foisting it on anyone.”
Smith explains: “I try to let the Lord’s love reflect from me.”
Alessi remembers, years ago, running into Smith in his Salvation Army uniform, when he was playing on the street during Christmas. “I just thought, ‘This guy has a night off and that’s what he does. I was so impressed. Most people think of Salvation Army musicians as garbage men doubling on brass instruments. These guys were great musicians.’ ”
Like Christian athletes who kneel before games, Smith still prays before every concert.
“And I pray during. I say, ‘Lord, I got the jitters here,’ ” he says. “ ‘Calm me down and help me play the best I can.’ ”
He was particularly nervous this month before a difficult solo in Aaron Copland’s “Quiet City” with the Philharmonic. “I asked my wife to pray that the devil doesn’t let feelings of fear attack my mind.” He knows such talk of Satan doesn’t go over well in secular circles. He smiles, unrepentant: “I do believe in the spirit world,” he says.
Until six years ago he conducted the Montclair Citadel band, and he still plays when he can get the time. Last week he and his wife, Sheila, a lyric soprano, performed with the band at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
More than 100 red-robed choir members from a local high school stood behind the band, dressed in Salvation Army blues. The audience roared when Smith walked on.
“It’s good to see him out there,” says Vernon Post, who played in a band with Smith’s father. “You don’t go much higher than the first chair of the Philharmonic, yet he gives his time.”
Again Smith stood by a small red kettle placed on the stage. And as he played the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s “Messiah,” his former student, Michael Baker, heard once more the golden sound that told him Christmas was near.