Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were groundbreaking jazz
musicians. Both had breathtaking skill on their respective
instruments, saxophone and trumpet. They were very different
players. A measure of a Parker tune would be filled with more notes
than you could count. By contrast, a measure of a Davis tune would
have a lot of space. With those differences in mind, the
similarities were that the tone of each note in a measure would be
As an English major in college, I was exposed to a lot of focus
on tone. I was required to take a full year of Shakespeare, which I
did as a sophomore. The professor was Theodore Baird. Baird was an
imposing individual, a "Paper Chase" Kingsfield type. As chairman
of the English Department, he was a powerful faculty member. Above
all, he was a gifted teacher. His approach in each class was the
same: some lad would be called on to engage in a dialogue with
Professor Baird about specific language in whatever play or sonnet
we were reading at the time. How long that dialogue would last
depended on many factors, but the less prepared you were, the more
likely you were to be engaged in a prolonged discussion. Allan
Albert, an outstanding student, was in that class with me. He later
became a highly regarded theatrical director and innovator, one of
his projects being the improvisation theater group he started in
Cambridge, which launched the career of Jane Curtin of "Saturday
Night Live" fame, among others. On one occasion, when Baird called
on Albert, the dialogue lasted no more than a few minutes, with
Baird intoning, "Mr. Albert, those were very insightful comments. I
think I shall have some fun with someone else now." Had I been the
object of Baird's "fun," I assure you my comments would have been
less insightful than Allan Albert's.
Baird was fond of giving unannounced exams. In fact, all exams in
his class were unannounced. You would learn about an exam upon
arrival at class, be given a one-sheet question, a bluebook, and
the class period to complete the exam. If you missed the class, you
got a zero -- no questions, no excuses. Every exam question
contained the same simple instructions: "In answering this
question, write no more than [x] pages in your bluebook, write
legibly, and make an end to what you are saying." That last
instruction has been etched in my brain ever since.
Tone in music and tone in language fascinate me. Lawyers,
particularly those of us who go to court, spend a lot of time
thinking about use of language, seeking to establish the right
tone. Often, there are multiple ways to convey the same thought or
image, and we struggle -- certainly I do -- to pick words that will
work best. Shakespeare always picked the right words. His choice of
language was and remains stunning. He told stories in his plays
that in many instances he borrowed or outright stole from others,
but he told the stories better than anybody. His plays were and are
accessible to everyone. That is genius.
Charlie Parker with a lot of notes, Miles Davis with fewer; both
played music that was and is accessible to everyone. They, too,
borrowed, or outright stole, from others. But they simply played
better than anyone else. In their improvisations, the notes they
chose always seemed just the right ones for the tone and mood they
wished to create. That is genius.
Thinking about Shakespeare, Parker and Davis is useful to provide
grounding and perspective. Genius in picking the right words and in
picking and playing the right notes is rare. For most of us,
establishing the right tone is hard work.
Robert Frost wrote a poem, published in 1915 but probably written
about 10 years earlier, entitled "The Death of the Hired Man."
There are a few lines in that poem that in substance have stayed
with me for many years, which I paraphrase frequently and often
attribute to the wrong author. The lines are:
"Home is the place where, if you have to go there,
They have to take you in."
Those lines are meant to be sarcastic, which is not the tone I
intend as I end this column.
I have been an officer of the MBA for several years. They have
been instructive, rewarding and mostly fun years. Especially over
this past year, 20 West St., Boston, has been home. The folks there
have been like family, and they have had to take me in. After Aug.
31, 2013, they will not be required to do so. Nonetheless, I do
hope they might take me in from time to time.
So, there you have it, Professor Baird: something about tone, in
the prescribed number of pages and an end to what I am saying.