July 28, 2008

Unbillable Hours: Hold the High-Tech: Baltimore Lawyer Finds Hi-Fi ‘Priceless’

By Steve Lash

Baltimore attorney E. Scott Johnson, a former professional musician and music producer, shuns high-tech in favor of high- fidelity when listening to the recording artists of the 1950s through 1970s.

Johnson, a self-described music purist, said he much prefers to hear such artists as jazz greats Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk on the same type of turntables and hi-fi equipment the performers used back before compact discs, iPods and MP3 players.

To get this authentic sound, Johnson said, he has devoted a room in his Baltimore townhouse to turntables, multiple playback channels and vintage speakers that hearken to what he called music's "golden era" from the mid-1950s through the 1960s.

Don't call his assortment of vintage equipment and vinyl albums a "collection," though. To Johnson, that word connotes museum pieces that look impressive behind glass but no longer have a practical function.

"This is working equipment," Johnson said. "If I can't use it, I don't want it."

The lawyer said he spends three to five off-hours per week in his "listening room," playing the music as he believes the artists heard it in their recording studios.

"I want to hear what they thought they were making," said Johnson, a partner at Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver P.C.

Miles and Monk, who died in 1991 and 1982, respectively, enjoyed their greatest success before the advent of compact-disc players and might have been surprised, even dismayed, by what their music sounds like on modern equipment, Johnson added.

"These guys never heard that" high-tech sound, he said "They heard what they wanted to hear, which, believe me, was beautiful."

Active listening

Listening to music is not a passive act for Johnson, who said he does not simply sit back and spin an album on a turntable made when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Johnson said he engages in "active listening" by moving the speakers and fiddling with the hi- fi knobs in an attempt to get the best sound, but always trying to remain authentic to what the artist must have heard when the music was played back for him or her all those years ago.

"What I'm into is the history of high fidelity and audio recordings," said Johnson, who as a child was classically trained on the piano and pipe organ.

Playing vintage music on vintage equipment is "an involving sort of thing" that requires the listener's total attention, he said. "That's [playing] one album at a time."

Over the years, Johnson's vinyl collection has swelled to 5,000 albums. It includes more than the 33-and-a-third and 45 revolutions per minute variety that most Americans over age 35 are familiar with. He also has 78 rpm and 10-inch albums, which never quite grew in popularity.

His albums reflect what he called his "eclectic" taste in music, stretching from the jazz of Davis and Monk, to the country and rhythm and blues of Little Feat, to the rock of Frank Zappa, to bluegrass and classical.

"I just like music, period," said Johnson, 57, adding that he is particularly fond of jazz.

Jazz was a large part of his professional life in the 1970s, when he was in his 20s and hadn't yet gone to law school. In the middle of the decade, he helped form a nine-member Baltimore-based jazz band named Both Worlds, which performed nationally.

His four-year stint with the band was part of a dozen-year musical career that included work as a performer, arranger, composer and producer.

"It didn't start as a hobby," Johnson said of his assortment of turntables, amplifiers and speakers. "For me, that was my career. It never completely leaves you."

Johnson, seeking more stability, graduated from Georgetown Law School in 1988 and began working for Ober|Kaler as an intellectual- property attorney, representing mostly musicians, of course.

Now a partner, he chairs the firm's IP group. He is also chairman of the Maryland State Arts Council. He was first appointed to the council in 2004 by then-Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a former partner at Ober|Kaler, and reappointed last year by Gov. Martin O'Malley.

Johnson's love of high-fidelity equipment and sound is evident in his East Baltimore Street office, where a visitor can find several 1950s-era amplifiers, pre-amps and FM tuners set to jazz, still his choice of music during breaks from work.

Johnson declined to put a dollar value on his assortment of high- fidelity equipment and albums, saying only that it is "priceless" to him.

"It's definitely valuable," he said. "But it's not something I'm going to part with."

Originally published by Steve Lash.

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