John “Hutch” Renaud, Robbin Rahman and Gary Kurz — lawyers all — are headed to Smilefest, a three-day music festival just outside of Asheville. Once there, they’ll don orange retro sweatsuits and Kangol caps and slip onstage for some of the funkiest sounds the Carolinas have heard. They are Cadillac Jones, the ’70s-style jazz/funk ensemble.
“We were drawn to the jazz/funk genre because the audience has such a good time with it,” says Kurz, who works for the Department of Health and Human Services. “It makes for a nice mix of musical interest and ass shaking.”
But they have trouble hiding evidence of their day jobs. There are almost as many laptops among their gear as Moog keyboards and electric basses, and sometimes Renaud (bass/entertainment law), Rahman (sax/bankruptcy) and Kurz (guitar/general counsel) find themselves, as Renaud puts it, “BlackBerrying right up to sound check.”
It wasn’t always this way. Renaud toured for years as a musician before looking into a backup job and finding the law. He’s now an attorney for Turner Broadcasting, but he says his parents aren’t that impressed. “My parents — Dad in particular — really hate lawyers,” he jokes. “But they had to admit it was likely to work out better than the music career.”
Rahman, now with Jones Day, and Renaud started the band as the Highland Jazz Combo in 1998. Kurz and several others joined in 2000 to play a house party. These days, there are seven or more musicians on stage at any given show — “to keep things interesting,” says Renaud.
Given Atlanta’s limited jazz/funk scene, booking agents weren’t sure what to do with Cadillac Jones — until, that is, the band fell in with the Neil Diamond cover band Hot August Knights, which routinely drew crowds of more than 300. “Hot August Knights really liked having us open shows for them because, as an instrumental band, we set the stage well for their charismatic lead singer,” says Renaud. “[They] opened the doors for us at Smith’s, the Earl … those venues weren’t too interested in booking us until they saw our live show.”
In 2001 the band cut its first record, Digmatic, and in 2003 it signed a record deal with Harmonized Records. How did negotiations with three attorneys go? “I handle entertainment contracts all day long,” Renaud says. “But I don’t think it intimidated the label too much. It was a modest deal, and it reflected our modest goals at the time. In a way, it’s easier to compromise on a deal when you are representing your own interests.”
As for the inevitable questions comparing music and the law? Renaud bristles slightly — he wants you to know he’s serious about music, that this is not just a lark — before answering. The greatest similarity, he says, is the need to “make the right decisions on your feet, be it on stage or in the courtroom.” He adds, “Jazz/funk is most like constitutional law, with broad language subject to extravagant interpretation.”
Just slightly less ass shaking in constitutional law.