Kansas City attorney finds complementary outlets for his talents through music and law
Kansas City attorney finds complementary outlets for his talents through music and law
Charlie Harris hears music all the time.
He wrote a bass line once he calls “Todd’s Groove,” the kind with a “syrupy kind of funk” that wouldn’t be out of place backing up James Brown.
“You know where I got that from?” Harris said in the conference room of his Kansas City law firm. “Sitting in this room, listening to a lawyer.”
Right in the middle of what was surely an intense negotiation, Harris found himself noticing a cadence in the lawyer’s voice (whose name, incidentally, isn’t Todd). “I thought, if he had some funk to him, that would be it,” Harris said. That evening, he recorded a snippet of a song, translating legal discourse into syrupy funk.
In many ways, Harris has a dream career. He jettisoned a job in human resources to become a lawyer, graduating from the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law in 1995. In 2007, he became the first African American lawyer to serve as president of The Missouri Bar, a historic position from which he helped to add three diversity seats to the organization’s board of governors aimed at including more minorities and women.
In the midst of his bar term, Harris joined and became a name partner at Seyferth Blumenthal & Harris, a boutique litigation firm in Kansas City. Harris’ employment-defense practice allows him to deploy his famously aggressive trial and mediation skills throughout the country. As a recent prominent example, Harris conducted a series of depositions that revealed that Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp had engaged in a romantic relationship with a female administrative assistant who was suing the county for harassment, prompting the sheriff to resign and the plaintiff to dismiss the case.
Yet despite his success and the obvious relish he brings to the law, Harris maintains that being a lawyer is, in the end, just a job. One where a victory is generally at someone else’s expense, one where clients are continually wondering what you will do for them next, one where you listen to people while waiting for your chance to pounce.
So for the past seven years, between long hours at the office and case-related trips across the country, Harris has poured himself into the bass guitar. In the morning before work, in the evening after dinner, sometimes tapping his foot during trials to the rhythm of a song only he can hear. He not only plays but also performs, sometimes alone, sometimes with his band, Chilliott, drawn from musicians from across the country he’s met along the way.
Performing music, he said, means baring your soul before an audience, hearing the first notes you play take the air out of the room, and listening — really listening — to the musicians beside you on stage.
This isn’t the story of a lawyer and his high-priced hobby. Nor is it the story of a lawyer toiling in drudgery to pay the bills while pursuing his true dream at night. Charlie Harris has found two co-equal and surprisingly complementary passions in which to pour his talents. And a decade after leaving bar leadership, Harris is bringing a new message to lawyers — find your own passion, for your own sake.
Before playing music became so central to Charlie Harris’ life, he found himself at a literal crossroads.
In April 2011, Harris traveled from Kansas City to rural Tennessee as the reluctant participant in a lifelong dream. As a 20th wedding-anniversary gift, Harris’ wife had sent him on a solo trip to a camp where he could let his love of music grow.
Wooten Woods sits on 150 acres of land about an hour west of Nashville. Victor Wooten, the institution’s eponymous head instructor, said that, once a traveler exits Interstate 40 and reaches the turn-off to the property, the approach can be a little intimidating.
“You’re riding slowly because the road’s bumpy and rocky,” Wooten said. “It’s a half-mile where you see nothing but trees on either side. You can’t see the beginning, you can’t see the end and you’re just riding deeper and deeper into the woods.
“For anybody, that may not be comfortable, but — I’ll just say it bluntly, as a black man, that’s scary, especially if you’re from the city,” said Wooten, who, like Harris, is black.
Harris had other reasons for being nervous. Victor Wooten is one of the foremost bass players in the world, a virtuoso whose work Harris had revered ever since he and his wife saw Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, the prodigiously talented band of which Wooten is a founding member, perform at the Grand Emporium in Kansas City in 1991.
Yet as much as Harris loved listening to bass guitar, he barely knew how to play it. His family had bought him a bass for Christmas a few years prior, which he played only sporadically and without any formal training. But he had a natural ear for music. He would hear a song on television, for instance, and approximate it on the guitar. He’d even composed his own song, “The Gift,” without knowing the notes or even what key it was in.
Vickie Harris, who had prophesied that he’d play with Wooten someday when she bought him the guitar, knew that attending the camp would light the spark that Harris needed to truly play the instrument.
“He knows what he’s doing in music, at least in his head,” she said. “He knows the tunes, he knows what he wants to play and compose. But the fact that someone would think he wasn’t really good at it was really nerve-wracking.”
A Conversation with Charlie Harris:
Harris took a few basic lessons in preparation for the camp and even bought a better bass guitar for the occasion. But he resisted attending to the last, begging his wife to cancel the trip.
Harris said that when his wife told him about the trip she’d planned for him, “For about five minutes, it was the first and only time I didn’t like my wife. I was mad.”
Wooten’s wife, Holly, who organizes the camp, got a call from Harris as he came in. He wanted to make sure he was on the right road. She could hear the hesitancy in his voice.
“It wasn’t until much later that I learned that this really tentative man was an attorney,” she said. “It made me laugh really hard, because it was counter to what I would have thought.”
The three-day camps at Wooten Woods give 60 people a chance to practice music the way Wooten, the youngest of five highly musical brothers, learned to play growing up: as a conversation between musicians, rather than a series of individuals practicing alone. Participants, sometimes in small groups, sometimes all together, learn to jam.
Harris said he spent the first two days in awe. It wasn’t until the third day that, figuring he’d never return anyway, Harris finally worked up the nerve to perform his original composition, “The Gift,” on the central stage. The camp might have ended as a one-off experience if Wooten hadn’t approached Harris on that final Sunday and complimented him on his performance.
“You know, man, what you just did … we couldn’t have done that any better, Harris recalls him saying. You just don’t know what you’re doing. Harris assumed Wooten was just being nice.
“But I kind of halfway believed him.”
Wooten said he saw a great deal of ability in Harris. It was clear that he wasn’t used to playing with others, but it was also clear that Harris knew what he wanted to play. As Wooten put it, “Charlie wasn’t waiting to be taught.”
“It wasn’t like Charlie was trying to sound like someone else. He was playing the way he played,” Wooten said. “In most cases, it takes someone a long time to figure that out. We knew he just needed to blossom, to expand that, to get to where he could use it with other people. And he did that.”
Encouraged, Harris took more lessons and began composing the songs that previously had only been in his head. He has returned to Wooten Woods multiple times, allowing him to meet banjo player BJ Presnell and percussionist Elliott Stevens, who both live in North Carolina. Despite the geographical barrier, they teamed up (and combined their names) to form Chilliott, a three-piece groove-oriented fusion band. They’ve recorded two albums and are planning for a third, and a few times a year they get together to perform at local bars and open mics.
Vickie Harris said it was immediately apparent when her husband returned that her gamble of a gift had paid off. She sees it still when he plays his original compositions, particularly when people who know him only as an attorney are in the audience.
“Many people know him as this hard guy, as a guy who just comes and tears you apart in a courtroom,” she said. “To see that ability to create those songs, and you knew they were original songs, it was like, ‘Wow.’”
Harris loves to perform in public, whether with his band, with local musicians in Kansas City or by himself. That is, of course, when his legal practice’s schedule allows. He said he was set to play at an art gallery in March. But a deposition ran until 6:30 p.m., and he was too tired to go.
“That’s the drawback of being a lawyer,” he said. “There’s only so many hours in the day. If I’ve got a gig at 8 and I have a deposition that goes until 7, that makes it tough. I hate it when the real job gets in the way of fun.”
“Nobody grasps this, because I don’t think anybody believes it but me, but there really isn’t much difference between me playing music and me trying a lawsuit or preparing for an oral argument,” Harris said.
Law and music admittedly are not professions that would seem to go hand in hand. Harris, however, says both require one to listen carefully and be able to react quickly and smoothly when something unexpected happens, whether that’s a witness contradicting his deposition testimony or a fellow musician playing an unexpected song.
“I can’t call them a liar, and I can’t start playing E flat when I’m playing in C,” he said.
Harris is drawn to the almost unconscious passion he sees in the musicians he’s come to know. He recalled walking in the woods with Roy “Futureman” Wooten, another member of the Flecktones and Victor Wooten’s brother. He noticed that Futureman was absent-mindedly humming to the beat of his footsteps.
“These guys, it’s not only their life: They breathe it,” Harris said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s astonishing. But if they sat in a room and saw me in a deposition, they’d say the same thing.”
Being a lawyer, he said, has allowed him to put his natural skills to their best use.
“I didn’t wake up saying, my God, I want to be a lawyer,” he said. “Rather, I woke up and said, my God, I want to use what skills you’ve given me, and I want to be damn good at it.”
At the same time, Harris doesn’t think that ability goes both ways. In other words, a good lawyer can adapt those talents to making music, but a good musician might not have what it takes to win at trial or elicit a damning admission in a deposition. Most of the musicians he knows, Harris said, are “gentle souls.” Lawyering requires aggressiveness.
“You have to absolutely enjoy the fight,” he said. “I don’t know — at least the guys that I know — that they are willing participants in slugfests.”
There is a dark side to the practice of law, one reflected in the national statistics on lawyer well-being. According to the American Bar Association’s Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, between 21 and 36 percent of lawyers qualify as problem drinkers. Similar percentages of lawyers struggle with some level of depression, anxiety or stress. More than 11 percent of all attorneys have had suicidal thoughts in the course of their careers.
“I’ve often heard people say the law is a jealous mistress,” Harris said. “I would submit to you that it is a vindictive murderer.”
He says that not in spite of but because of the obvious glee that he brings to his practice. To pursue the law as a craft of the highest calling requires long hours and breathtaking amounts of work that can become all-consuming.
“When you do that you get single-focus, and when you get single-focus everything else that should be important in your life falls to the side, which is the reason I believe that so many lawyers have problems with drinking, problems with drugs, infidelity, divorces,” he said.
“They’re so consumed that they don’t take enough time to expand their horizon and become more well-rounded, so that this vicious murderer doesn’t kill you.”
Is music the answer for all of the legal profession’s ills? Probably not. Harris notes that he has other outlets as well: a love of classic cars, the occasional round of golf. But those pastimes don’t come close to filling the central role that music plays in his life. And they lack the attribute that distinguishes music from almost all other areas: It is meant to be shared, and if you’re in the audience, you’re there because you want to be.
“I absolutely could not be prouder to say that I’m a member of this profession,” Harris said. “But I have no illusion that I’m changing the world. But I tell you what: I know for a fact that when you hit it good and you’re playing for people, you’ve changed someone’s day for the good.”