Friday, July 24, 2009
These Lawyers March to the Beat of Their Own Drums
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
(Fifth in an occasional series on lawyers and judges engaged in musical pursuits.)
Among the members of the legal community included in this series, drums were by far the most popular instrument.
West Los Angeles attorney Keith Turner facetiously claims, “Twenty percent of all lawyers are drummers, or drummer wanna-bes,” because, “pounding is good, it clears your mind.”
Walking with him to West L.A. Music one hot Thursday afternoon, mere blocks from his former office, Turner admits that the store’s proximity was a deliberate choice on his part, although “not one of the top five reasons I chose the location.”
Store employees greeted him by name as he strolled in the door and headed to the back of the store to look at cymbals. The store used to be a bank, and the cymbals are kept in what used to be the bank’s vault.
Turner said he has been looking for a new cymbal for over two years, but gesturing around him he sighed and said, “I’m just overwhelmed.”
One cymbal produced a high, tinny sort of sound, like a metal pie plate. Another produced a deeper, more sinister sound, like a rumble of distant thunder. Yet a third sounded like a gong.
‘Soul of a Samurai’
Mediator Paul Cohen explains that cymbals are deeply personal to a drummer, even though the differences may not be noticeable to the audience.
“They’re like the soul of a samurai,” Cohen proclaims. “You can steal the drums, but God almighty, leave the cymbals!”
Among his most prized, he says, is an original K Zildjian cymbal, crafted in the early 1900s from a 380-year old alloy kept a family secret by the cymbal’s Turkish manufacturers.
Fellow mediator and administrative law judge Michael Diliberto says he was hoping to find a cymbal like Cohen’s during a trip to Istanbul but was unsuccessful.
While American Express once ran an advertising campaign advising people not to leave home without the credit card, Diliberto, an avid traveler, does not leave home without his drum sticks.
He recalls that his sticks and drumming ability came in handy once, when he was wandering the streets in Shanghai, China, looking for a place to stay the night.
Diliberto says he found a seamen’s club and went inside. There was a band rehearsing, and he asked to join in. The band invited him to perform with them that evening, and after the show, arranged for him to stay at one of their homes.
“I literally played for my room and board that night,” he says.
After leaving Shanghai, Diliberto journeyed onward to Indonesia and then Nepal, where he purchased a mahdal—a small, two-headed, cylindrical hand drum. The drum was “lovingly hand carried” all the way back to California, but to make room for it among his travel gear, Diliberto shipped his boots home to his mother.
“I didn’t have time to write a note,” he explains, so his mom just got a box with his boots and some Indonesian currency in it and feared the worst had befallen her son. “She had the State Department looking for me,” he admits ruefully.
Miami Sound Machine
Diliberto began playing as a sixth grader, and in college formed the band which came to be known as the Miami Sound Machine and catapulted singer Gloria Estefan to superstardom.
“They played with me at my senior recital,” the music major recalls.
However, acting turned out to be more lucrative for the tall, lanky attorney. He says he landed a small role in the romantic comedy “Broadcast News” and a national insurance commercial, which financed his trip around the world and part of his law school tuition.
Because he was booking shows for himself and others and already helping people with their contract, trademark and copyright issues, Diliberto says he decided to apply for law school to go into entertainment law.
After graduating, Diliberto had a change of heart about going into entertainment law and decided to become a mediator.
“It was just part of the evolutionary process,” he reflects. “You kind of explore what talents and skills you have, and it turns into what you become when you grow up.”
Diliberto says his drumming talents led him into mediation.
“I look at drumming as the ultimate in multi-tasking,” he explains. “It requires four-way independence,” meaning that each arm and leg has to be doing a different thing at the same time to play the song.
“Mediation is like that,” he says. “Every party has different things going on and you have to bring it all together to a cohesive finish.”
He says he has not been playing very often since graduating from law school, but even though “the chops aren’t what they were in the old days ... I’m always up for a jam session.”
He recently travelled to Ecuador, where he gave a concert with some local musicians, and has joined the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic Orchestra.
‘Not an Amateur Thing’
For Cohen, drumming is “not an amateur thing,” he says. He has played with some of the best jazz musicians of all time, including Charlie Mingus, Bill Evans and Archie Schepp.
As a teenager, Cohen recalls his family took a trip to New York City, and he wandered into a drum store owned by jazz drummer Henry Adler. Adler is best known for having taught Buddy Rich, who is regarded by many as the world’s greatest drummer. Cohen walked right up to Adler and asked for lessons.
Adler said yes. Starting two weeks later, Cohen began making the three-and-a-half hour train ride from his family’s home in Harrisburg, Pa. to New York for lessons on a bi-monthly basis.
Cohen continued playing throughout college, and after he graduated, he was admitted to Penn Law School. But, he says, “I just never showed up,” because he had received a scholarship to the Lennox School of Jazz and went there instead.
‘Serious High-Level Playing’
At Lennox, Cohen studied with Max Roach, a drummer and pioneer of the bebop style of jazz. After that, he says he “got into really serious high-level playing with icons of the jazz world.”
In 1959, at the age of 22, Cohen played a concert with Grammy-Award-winning composer and conductor Gunther Schuller. “It was the best [musicians] in the world,” Cohen recalls with a touch of awe, “and me.”
He toured the country a bit, but he admits, “I hated the road, I hated staying out late, I hated smoky nightclubs,” and he decided to enroll at New York University’s law school.
Not that he stopped playing. Cohen recorded an album with jazz saxophonist Archie Schepp and played with Don Ellis’ rehearsal group while he was in law school.
Cohen’s wife, retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Isabel Cohen, says her husband has “always had a dual vocation,” and that both music and law have “always driven him.”
Cohen theorizes that “the musical thing informs my law.” For example, he says if you take the syllogism A plus B equals C, but B is an unknown, “It’s hard to find the B sometimes,” but he can, in both music and the law. In law, he says, “I get an ‘Ah-ha! That’s how it goes’ and then the case sounds like a song.”
He says he has “hunches and intuition” — his wife adds, “beyond the norm” — in part because music helped him develop that. Cohen says he is not sure if it is because of music, or if he can play music because of it, but his wife is adamant, “his musical gift gives him an extra edge for knowing [things].”
Sitting in the living room of their Hollywood Hills home, which is dominated by one of Paul Cohen’s four drum sets, Cohen admitted that the drums are normally kept in the living room. “I don’t envy the neighbors,” he added.
His wife clucked disapprovingly and said, “Everyone who hears him loves it.”
Cohen says that he has had drums in his living room since he was 13, wherever he lived. With a smile, Isabel Cohen says: “It’s strictly a love me, love my drums relationship...or more of a love me, love my drums in the living room relationship.”
After her husband disclosed that he used to sleep with his snare drum beside his bed, with his hand hanging over the side to touch it while he slept, Isabel Cohen joked:
“It’d be a mistake to ask him to pick between his snare drum and his wife.”
Cohen says he is currently playing regularly with a jazz quartet and will be performing Aug. 8 at the Hollywood Studio Bar and Grill. He is also in preproduction on his first vocal album, which he says will hopefully be released in the next year.
Back at West L.A. Music, Turner abandoned his search for a cymbal in favor of a bright yellow drum kit, which sported a hefty $5,300 price tag. “I love this set!” he exclaims. “And I actually like this cymbal.”
Turner began playing the drums in fifth grade, and played in “millions of garage rock bands” while growing up. However, a week before he enrolled in law school, he sold his drums.
“I figured that was it, I had to say goodbye to it,” he explains. “I didn’t know any adults who played music.”
He said nearly 10 years elapsed while he worked and raised his family, but one day in 1988, his wife and the other mothers in his children’s playgroup realized that all the fathers all played different instruments, and the fathers joined together to form a band.
“There’s a lawyer, a doctor and a psychologist,” Turner said. “There’s a joke in there somewhere.”
The group, which plays covers of rock songs, eventually came to be known as the House Band, after playing the same house party each year.
They rehearse in Turner’s garage, which he converted into a studio. “As a drummer, you want to have rehearsals at your house because you don’t want to schlep this stuff around,” he says.
House Band will perform in September at the Trip Bar in Santa Monica, he says.
‘Going on Instinct’
Turner made his way through the store, taking a moment to try a few beats on every drum set he passed. He settled in behind a digital drum kit and mused aloud about putting one in his office for him to take respite with.
“The thing is for me, when I’m playing I find there’s very little thinking going on,” he says. “It’s all instinct, which is a very different experience from the law, where everything is so calculated.
“But at the same time, drummers have to keep the beat and be in control, even when performing a wild drum break,” Turner said. “Just like lawyers sometimes seem like they’re going crazy, yelling and carrying on, but they know what they’re doing. They’re going for the jugular.”
He fingered the cymbal he liked and contemplated how he could justify the $500 price tag to his wife before deciding not to buy it. “If I buy that, I’ll have to buy four or five other cymbals to match,” he said at last. “It’ll be a slippery slope.”
After a little more browsing and chatting with the staff, he purchased a few sets of drum sticks, promised to come back soon, and headed back to work.
At a recent event in Marina Del Rey, over 300 people packed themselves into a hotel ballroom to see the Westside Crew—a 10-member self-proclaimed “party band” established over 13 years ago by West Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Gilbert Rodriguez and three of his childhood friends.
“We’re like family,” Rodriguez said at a band rehearsal a few weeks before the event. The group was crowded into the largest rehearsal room available at the West L.A. Music Studio, and was actually short one member, which was hard to imagine since there was barely enough room for everyone to stand amid the maze of instruments, wires and speakers.
The rehearsal was more of a party, complete with a case of beer making the rounds. The band maintained a constant stream of conversation, even while playing, joking and trading insults. “I never miss a rehearsal,” Rodriguez claimed. “It helps me get my ya-ya’s out.”
Although every member of the band is a professional with a full-time day job and the clock on the wall was creeping towards 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night, the band showed no signs of stopping anytime soon.
The bandmates hail from a rough area of Venice that Rorriguez calls “ghost town.” It was established by Rodriguez and his friends Tim Lennon, John Agatep and Rudy Gapasin over 13 years ago because, Rodriguez says, their wives complained they were “hanging around the house too much.”
Rodriguez plays the congas and other hand percussion instruments for the group. His distinctive laugh—a cackling “Ha!”—also punctuates the songs.
He said he bought the congas when he was in middle school, with the money his father had given him for getting straight A’s in school. Actually, Rodriguez admited, he first bought a saxophone, but he said he could not play it. “I don’t have pitch,” he explained.
So he exchanged the instrument for the drums, and “by the grace of God,” he said, he taught himself to play.
Over the years, the group has performed at Rusty’s on the Santa Monica Pier, B.B. Kings, House of Blues, 14 Below, Temple Bar, At My Place, and various community fairs, Rodriguez said. They also have a loyal local fan base, as evinced by the packed dance floor at Marina Del Rey performance, where it was standing-room only. They are performing again at the Marina Beach Marriott Hotel Aug. 21.
But he maintained the group is not professional because, “We don’t play for the money, it’s for the enjoyment of playing.”
At the same time, he said, “We’re not a garage band,” because “no one is rich enough to have a garage.”
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company