Lawyers Journal

Taking stock

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 exquisite.

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.

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