Friday, May 8, 2009
For Jazz-Loving Lawyers and Judges, the ‘Swing’ Is the Thing
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
(Third in an occasional series on lawyers and judges engaged in musical pursuits.)
For Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert of this district’s Court of Appeal, defining abstract concepts of law is all in a day’s work. Ask him to explain the standard of care that should have been applied in a tort case or what specific language in a contract means, and he can do it in a succinct, organized opinion. But ask him to define jazz, and that can take all night.
“Jazz...jazz is a construct,” he said with a wry smile, late one Friday evening as he sat at the grand piano dominating the foyer of his home, using a phrase attributed to Krin Gabbard, a State University of New York, Stony Brook professor who has authored numerous books on the subject.
Gilbert said that jazz is “a whole different thing” than other types of music. “This stuff you have to think about, there’s a lot of complex stuff going on.”
At its most fundamental level, Gilbert said jazz is making a melody written on the pages in front of him “more interesting,” by “improvising chord changes” to create variations of the basic tune.
‘It’s Like Bach’
“It’s like Bach, only it’s like we’re trying to do it on the spot,” he explained. “Not that we’re comparing ourselves, but that’s the theory.”
Adding to the complexity though, are additional musicians who are also improvising on the same song at the same time. Motioning toward the guitarist and bassist standing beside him, Gilbert said, “We’re trying not to get in each other’s way.”
When they play, they look at each other more than the sheets of music in front of them, and take turns performing brief solos. Occasionally they call out for one another to “take it,” but for the most part, they transition between themselves seamlessly.
Jerome L. Levine of Holland & Knight opines that jazz is about “listening to what your colleagues are playing,” playing a complementary tune within the framework of the song’s melody and “nudging each other in different directions.”
Century City solo practitioner Steven Sadd said jazz “is all about listening, it’s all about teamwork [and] constantly working to create something that’s bigger than all of us.”
Jazz, in the broadest sense, is the product of improvisation, interaction and collaboration. Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney David Fairweather adds a fourth element he called “swinging.”
He defines “swinging” as “a natural rhythmic sense that lifts the music up a little bit.”
Fairweather, a jazz singer and harmonica player, claims, “I wasn’t blessed with the best set of vocal pipes in the world,” even though his deep baritone voice suggests otherwise. “But people say I swing well.”
Saying that a person swings “is about the highest compliment you can give someone,” Fairweather explains. “On the other side, the worst insult you can give someone is to say ‘he wouldn’t swing if you hung him with a rope.’”
Jazz singer Anita O’Day famously used the expression to disparage Stan Kenton, a pianist and leader of an American jazz band who was often criticized for his unconventional experiments combining jazz and classical music.
“Justice Gilbert swings,” Fairweather says. “I’d like to think I do too.”
Practitioners of ‘Vocalese’
Fairweather and Gilbert were playing in the same jazz ensemble for over six months before they realized they were both in the legal field, Fairweather recalls. He said he hopes to go out and perform with Gilbert soon. The two also compose “vocalese” pieces together.
“Vocalese” involves taking a well known instrumental jazz solo and putting words to it. “It’s singing what was originally an instrumental jazz line,” Fairweather explains. “It combines poetry, singing, and swinging.”
A few years ago, he had the opportunity to perform some of his own vocalese pieces onstage with Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, a jazz vocalese trio popular in the 1950s. “That was a good moment,” he recalls. Most recently, he performed at the Radisson in Century City.
“But, you know, at clubs and things, I’m always being introduced as a district attorney,” he grouses. “Just once, I’d like to be introduced in court as that master harmonica player, jazz and blues artist David Fairweather.”
‘Very Demanding’ Art Form
Levine, the executive managing partner of Holland & Knight’s Los Angeles office, says, “There’s a wonderful quality to jazz that’s hard to describe, that has to do with the rhythms and feeling,” but that it is a “very demanding” art form to pursue.
“It’s constantly changing and you have to constantly change with it,” the drummer explains. “It’s challenging musically, aesthetically and intellectually to execute it at the level you need to execute it at.”
Levine began playing the drums when he was in junior high school, and after high school worked as a professional musician throughout college and law school. Eventually, music yielded to law as his main means of livelihood. “I couldn’t do both on a serious basis,” he explains.
It was a “difficult” decision, but he maintains he made the right choice and harbors no regrets. “I love music and it’s very deep inside me, but I also love practicing law,” he says.
He still meets up once a week or so with a group he refers to as “the guys”—his former college roommates—to play in his garage, which he converted into a recording studio a few years ago. Levine says all of them have played professionally and with each other in various combinations over the years.
“My preference and most of my experience is as a jazz musician,” he says, but he does play some rock n’ roll with a band his firm formed a few years ago called The Chesterfield Lights—a reference to one of the firm’s founders, Chesterfield Smith—at firm functions as well.
Saxophonist and bass guitarist Sadd opines that what makes jazz great is “the symbiosis of what you can do with good players.”
For example, Sadd played bass on the “Metro Mile” album for Russ Mullen and the Jazz Associates which received nationwide radio airplay this past summer.
“What started as ‘let’s get a beer and play some music’ turned out to be the No. 23 jazz CD in June,” the pony-tailed, Hawaiian shirt-wearing attorney guffaws amiably.
Sadd, a former voting member of the Grammy Awards nominating society known as NARAS, said Metro Mile was considered for a Grammy nomination this year, but just missed the cut. The album hit No. 30 in November 2008, and received 35 plays on KJAZZ 88.1, “the premiere jazz radio station,” Sadd said.
The real estate and tort attorney worked his way through college as a professional musician, opening for bands such as the Doobie Brothers, Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Jefferson Starship.
Even though he says he went to law school in order to work on the business side of the music industry, he never made the transition from entertainer to entertainment lawyer.
“I guess it turned out OK,” he says, “because now I get the benefit of being around all these [musicians] without having to hold their hand or dealing with all their problems,” while remaining “free from the economic tie to [music]” as well.
“It’s fun to do what you enjoy, and if the dollar follows, that’s great,” he says. “It keeps me busy and happy.”
Sadd opines that “people with the gift of music have an obligation to share it,” and adds “if there are so many of us who are lawyers, I’d like to issue a challenge to the legal profession as a whole to do something to encourage more students to play music.”
After nearly two hours of playing and chatting, Gilbert was still no closer to articulating the precise definition of jazz. When pressed, he said with a smile and a shrug, “it makes you alive.”
A few years ago Gilbert recalled that he had been planning a trip to climb the base camp of Mt. Everest, but cancelled at the last minute because he heard famed vibraphone player Charlie Shoemake was starting to take on students. “I thought that’s the trip I should be taking, a trip of the mind,” he exclaimed. “That was my Everest. I went to new levels of playing.”
Gilbert’s father was a professional pianist, and the justice reminisced, his father had implored him “whatever you do, don’t become a jazz musician.” But he after the first time he heard some travelling musicians play jazz, he says “I went nuts, I figured this was it for me.”
So when his piano instructor told him he “had it” and “would be famous” as a jazz pianist, Gilbert admitted “I was so excited, and my parents were so nervous.”
He recalled his parents reminding him “you don’t like cigarette smoke, you don’t drink,” and encouraged him to pursue his schooling.
“It was a real tough decision,” he said, “but I think I made the right choice.”
With a grin he added, “I’d rather be the presiding justice of my court than starving.”
Through the years though, he has continued to play “on the side.” He performed a few weeks ago at The Jazz Bakery in Culver City, taking the time to conduct the wedding of his bass player after the first set.
The Jazz Bakery is owned by jazz singer Ruth Price. As a young man, Gilbert said he used to watch Price performing at night clubs. “I was just nuts about her,” he disclosed. “I thought she was the sexiest thing in the world, and I’d just be sitting there, drooling.” Now he counts the legendary singer as a friend.
Gilbert dabbled briefly in the clarinet, trumpet and trombone as child. And in the 1960s he took up the tabla—a type of hand drum used in Hindustani classical music—taking lessons from Grammy-Award-winning sitarist Ravi Shankar. “I was a lawyer by day, tabla player at night,” he recalled.
But he said he was “just being a dilletante” with the other instruments. “The piano is my instrument,” he declared.
He currently studies with renowned jazz pianist Terry Trotter.
As Gilbert played with his bandmates, his body swayed while his fingers danced across the keyboard and his eyes sparkled. During a break in the music, Gilbert avidly discussed arranging a piece with just the piano and bass with the bassist.
Even though it was moving well past 10 p.m. and the jurist maintained, “I need my sleep,” the trio kept jamming away into the night.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company