Cool cats: Swing and blues band is well-versed in the law

By Brian Cox

Legal News

The clarinetist bends forward into the feel of the music while the violin player sways back into it. The bassist behind them bops at the knees, shifting from foot to foot with a slight head wag and his brother, the guitarist, glides a step forward and slides a step back. The keyboardist is hunched and nodding; the drummer is skimming his toms with brushes.

"Get hip, get hip, get hip," they sing. "Get your kicks on Route 66."

They're The Cat's Pajamas. They're pretty cool and pretty smooth. Who'd guess they were lawyers?

The band played a Federal Bar Association Eastern District Chapter holiday mixer at the Book Cadillac last December.

"This is a low-impact gig, a couple of sets tops," observes "Fiddlin" Steven Whalen, who in another life happens to be a U.S. magistrate judge.

The Cat's Pajamas have been playing together in one form or another for almost 20 years and are made up of Clark Hill attorneys David Hardesty and Daniel Bretz; his brother Ron Bretz, a Cooley Law School professor; arbitrator Barry Goldman; and Whalen. Drummer Jim Hart is the only member of the band who isn't a lawyer.

The band has a tried-and-true quip about how long they've been making music together: "At our age, we've decided instead of groupies we'd prefer roadies."

The band performs at legal events and a good number of fund-raisers and benefits in the course of a year.

"It's another way we can contribute," says Hardesty. "We can have a lot of fun, but it's also a way for us to give."

Goldman, Hardesty and Dan Bretz began playing together in law school at Wayne State back in the late 1970s. With a wry grin, the bearded Goldman recalls meeting Hardesty when after their first class Goldman traipsed to the bar across the street for a boilermaker. He sat down next to a guy he recognized from the class. It was Hardesty. "Hello," said Goldman. "I think we might be friends."

They're not sure any longer who came up with the name The Cat's Pajamas, but are inclined to agree it was Goldman. The throwback name seemed to fit the style of swing standards they love to play.

"Shine my shoes, slick my hair, Lulu's back in town," sings Goldman to the mingling crowd.

A lawyer with drink in hand wanders over from across the room to in front of the band and snaps his fingers to the Fats Waller hit. When the song is over, he calls out, "Lulu's Back in Town!"

"Somebody actually knows one of our songs," cracks bassist Ron Bretz into the mike. "The last time someone knew one of our songs, we were playing in a retirement home, I think."

Ron Bretz pulls out his bass whenever he finds the chance. As a teen he was a member of a rock n' roll band called "The Bouys" and now plays in "3rd Degree," a Lansing-area blues band. The professor has even jammed with some of his Cooley law students. He cannot imagine his life without music. Well, he can, but it wouldn't be pleasant.

"I'd be in therapy if I wasn't playing music," he says.

Dan Bretz, Goldman, and Hardesty started playing at parties during law school and getting together Wednesday nights at the Ark in Ann Arbor to drink some Stroh's and jam.

Music took a bit of a back seat after law school while everyone worked at establishing their legal careers, but then Goldman pulled Dan Bretz and Hardesty back into performing when he found Hart to be their drummer. In 1993, they got a steady gig playing the first Saturday of every month at Nancy Whiskey's Pub, in the shadow of old Tiger Stadium.

Other regular gigs followed. They played nine years at Sunrise Sunset Saloon in Grosse Pointe Park and performed Sunday nights at Tenny Street Station, a blues bar.

Dan Bretz's brother Ron joined the band during the time they were appearing at Nancy Whiskey's and Whalen came aboard a few years after that.

They've been playing together ever since, but it never gets old.

"It's always new, it's always fresh," says Dan Bretz. "It's always lots of fun using different parts of your brain."

That is a critical element of the band's sustained appeal over the years--it's a world away from law.

"An important part of it is that it's completely different from what we do for a living," says Goldman.

"What I like about music is that it's not verbal," says Whalen during a break between sets. "The other thing I like about music in comparison to law is that practicing law you can do a fantastic job and people won't like you, but in music you can do a mediocre job and everybody applauds."

But there is more than applause that keeps the band hauling and setting up their equipment to perform at fund-raisers and legal community events. The band allows them to exercise their creativity and musical intuition and thrive on what Dan Bretz calls the "instantaneous exchange of inspiration."

"When we feel it, it's as fun as it gets," agrees Whalen. "Creating in the moment."

In addition to the applause and creativity, there's a third reason they continue to make time to make music together. The simple fact that it's fun.

"There's a rule at Cat's Pajamas' gigs," says Goldman, arranging his horns. "No one has more fun than we do. None of us works at it. It takes care of itself. It's not work. It's pure fun."

The Cat's Pajamas kick off the next set.

"I know why I'm blue," sings Hardesty in his gravely voice, his drink set close at hand on the keyboard. "She left me for someone exactly like you."

They sound pretty cool and pretty smooth. Like they've been doing it for years.

Published: Tue, Aug 30, 2011


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