Law … and All That Jazz

A little night music from IP attorney Jonathan Z. King

Published in 2010 New York Metro Super Lawyers — September 2010

Jonathan King is one of the top intellectual property litigators in the state, but that’s not who he is. Who he is began when he was 9 years old and became infatuated with the ragtime-infused soundtrack to the 1973 movie The Sting, featuring songs by famed pianist Scott Joplin.

“We had a piano in the house and I started picking at the songs that I heard in the movie and was utterly transfixed,” he says.

A year later he was playing with legends. “My mom, who had worked for a travel company, booked us on a jazz cruise,” he says. “I remember the experience of being a little kid up on stage with Dizzy Gillespie. He’s one of the people who invented the modern vocabulary of jazz, so to play with him when you’re 10 is a mind-blowing experience. … Everything about him was larger than life.”

At 15, King began playing professionally in clubs, and by 18, he was the mentee to Mulgrew Miller, the piano player for jazz drummer Art Blakey, whose band was, King says, “a springboard for a lot of musicians. I must have gone to see Art Blakey play a hundred times.”

After majoring in English at Princeton, he earned his J.D. at Harvard. All the while, he played gigs at night.

Instead of quieting down in 1994 when he joined Cowan Liebowitz & Latman, famous for its intellectual property focus, life got busier. “It really was kind of nuts,” he admits. “There was a famous jazz club called Bradley’s … probably the most famous jazz piano bar in the world. I was playing at Bradley’s and that gig wouldn’t get finished till 3:30 in the morning, I’d get paid and get home by 4:30, and go off to Cowan at 8:30 [a.m.] the next day.”

Then life got too busy. “In September [‘94] I got an offer to join Joshua Redman’s band.”

The world-renowned saxophone player invited King to join his tour through that December. Just eight months into his job at Cowan, King was asking for a leave of absence.

“They were totally cool about it,” he says. “They said, ‘Look, if you need this to be happy, this is who you are, we like you, you work really hard when you’re here, go ahead and do it.’” Upon his return, he asked for a part-time arrangement, which would allow him leave for weeks or even months at a time to play gigs or record albums (he’s recorded three with his own band, many more as a side man). That arrangement lasted until the end of 2005.

In the midst of it all, King wrote a book, a primer demystifying jazz, called What Jazz Is.

As for what jazz isn’t? It isn’t, King states emphatically, like the law.

Sure, you can stretch for a comparison. “Jazz is constantly spontaneously composing,” he says. “In law, you get to sit down and compose a brief; [and] if you’re standing up in court, you’re responding and interacting. So there’s an element of improvisation to both.” But King wants you to know the comparison is weak. “It’s like saying ‘Is a bicycle the same as an elephant?’”

A full-time partner, King focuses on trademark, copyright, trade secrets and unfair competition cases. Many of his clients are giants in the fashion industry, such as DKNY and Liz Claiborne Inc., which owns Juicy Couture and Lucky Brand Jeans. “Their brands, their trademarks, are such important assets,” says King. “What I’m advising them on is one of the most important aspects of their company.”

His reputation for success has crossed industries. He helped the third-largest pharmaceutical company in the world, sanofi-aventis, force a public startup with a similar name to change its name globally. He successfully defended his client’s product, “Famous Sqwish Candy Fish,” against claims that its name, trade dress and product shape were too similar to the Swedish Fish brand of candy. And for the last two years, King has worked on trademark infringement, false advertising and related claims in the beverage, computer software and nutritional supplements industries.

He stopped touring on jazz gigs shortly after his first daughter was born in 2001. He didn’t want to miss the important moments of his daughters’ lives.

Besides, he adds, “Jazz is in a bit of a weird transitional period right now.” The new model of music distribution—“electrical signals sent to an iPod”—is a structure that old-school jazz artists are struggling with. His old-school favorites, though, are as influential on him as ever: McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter. “They break all the rules of normal academic literature on how you write music,” he says. “It’s the most significant music of the 20th century.”

King devotes the extra time to his firm, where he’s been on the executive committee for the last few years.

“There’s no way I won’t ever be a jazz musician,” he says. “I have more responsibility at this firm … but they still know that I periodically disappear and go play music.”

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