Something I Was Good At
Something I Was Good At
Birdland, Music by Joe Zawinul, Words by Jon Hendricks, Sung by The Manhattan Transfer (1979), Encountered 1979
The Manhattan Transfer’s rendering of Birdland, a tribute to a long-gone 52nd Street jazz venue, was like no song I had heard before. The moment I first encountered it (listening to WEAA, the Morgan State University radio station one winter morning in late 1979), I sensed I was in for layers of unpacking.
It was a picture of a jazz club where everyone that mattered played, and I didn’t really know who any of them were:Bird would cook, Max would look – where? Down in Birdland Miles came through, ‘Trane came too – there Down in Birdland Basie blew, Blakey too – where? Down in Birdland Cannonball played that hall – there Down in Birdland Yeah
This pantheon-by-nickname evocation of black jazz stars, most of whose names, let alone nicknames, were unknown to me, was a challenge and a signpost. A white guy raised mainly on rock (as these postings attest), I could hear these words and realize I how far I still had to go in my musical basic training.
Vocalese and Space Cadets
And then there was the vocalese aspect of the song: the lyrics written to follow the scattered notes of a jazz instrument. That was a new one on me too. (Later I would come to know of Jon Hendricks, the lyricist, vocalese wordsmith par excellence, and, in 2004, I would actually watch him sing and shake hands with him in a Paris nightclub.) But I had to start learning about this.
I knew also that the music came from Weather Report, a jazz-rock fusion band at least as white as it was black, and that the song was not itself the kind of jazz it praised. Much, then, to learn about fusion.
And then, it wasn’t being performed by Weather Report, either, but by this quartet called The Manhattan Transfer, who had had themselves drawn on the album cover as a series of angular tops, and photographed on the back of the sleeve as some kind of space cadets from the future. I was going to have to learn about them too, because they clearly were dedicated to reviving and expanding various musical styles I didn’t even know the names for, but wanted to hear more of.
Worth Working For
To be sure, all that homework would be fine by me. By then I was doing plenty of homework, anyhow, and none of it fazed me. I had found something I was really good at and really liked: the law. It was worth working for, just as great music was.
I had been through graduate school, and my feelings about that experience, mostly bad, have already been discussed here. Law school was the un-grad school. It wasn’t pretentious, it followed more or less rational rules, and the work I did was every bit as challenging to the mind as that I’d done in graduate school, but it paid off in mastery of usable concepts, concepts that worked together. The accepted metaphor for this coordination of the various branches of the law is “the seamless web.” But the tight four-part harmony of the Manhattan Transfer would have been closer to the mark.
Harmony also characterized the friendships I was making. My small section was full of interesting people; the study group many of us in that section formed were like brothers and sisters, and stayed close for many years after law school.
Best of all, this exercise was heading me toward employment. I’ve written in these pieces of the frustration of being an out-of-work Ph.D.; this story was obviously going to end differently. They told us in the orientation session that we should avoid paid work during our first year, and I ignored them. I needed the money, and I needed the feeling of being hands-on.
My first job was reading and commenting on criminal trial transcripts for a poverty lawyer with a distinguished background as a Communist who had been disbarred in McCarthy time, and then rehabilitated as the hysteria receded. Then, sometime during or right after the second semester, I started working as a law clerk for a couple of downtown litigators, and began to learn the mechanics of a litigation practice: drafting papers, going to court, serving process, billing, office procedures. And by the time I heard Birdland, I had received two semesters’ worth of grades, knew I was near the top of the class, and had written my way onto the law review. Best of all, I had received an offer of employment over the summer of 1980 from what most members of the Baltimore legal community regarded as the classiest firm in town, then known as Piper & Marbury.
Cup Running Over
Nor was even that all the good news. I had assembled pieces of my father’s last book and just had it accepted by Praeger Publishers, and was continuing to place bits of writing in published locations, like my college alumni magazine. I was still a writer.
It would have been impossible and inhuman to avoid some degree of hubris at this juncture, and I was never very good at the impossible. I was feeling I could beat the world at long last, that I had found the key. And the Transfer’s exhilarating tight, jazzy harmony which had bored its way into my brain almost on first hearing was the background music for that buzzy hubristic high.
To the right, a photo of me and my son the summer I was beating the world, shortly before I heard that song. The posture says it all.
 There still is a Birdland, and it certainly has some kind of legitimate successorship to the 52nd Street club, but it is actually the third venue to bear the name. Read about it here.
 Although I suppose that The Animals’ Monterey was a little similar, if you substitute rock for jazz and the Sixties for the Forties and Fifties.
 I can talk knowledgably about all of them now, but it took me another two decades to reach that point.
 See the Weather Report version of the song and read the history of it here.
 A John dos Passos title, as I knew from my English Literature days. Not that I could see either in the album or in the group any echoes of dos Passos. I don’t know what the group name means.
 Truth to tell, I have since come to feel that the seamless web metaphor is less than apt. In my maturity, I see the law as being a series of compromises between warring principles, compromises that do not stick for long. Yes, every piece has to fit somehow with every other piece, but the relationships between any two pieces will be affected by all other relationship, in a never-ending evolution. When I grasp for a metaphor today, I come up with the way a galaxy holds together, with the physical forces binding all the stars together constantly in flux as they move relative to each other. Or, if one is relying on solid structures, a tensegrity.