Asking Jules Coleman, Professor of Jurisprudence and Philosophy at Yale Law School, to list his favorite bands is almost like asking James Joyce to list only a few of his influences.
After expounding on seven or eight artists, Coleman loses count, closes his eyes and riffs. “No one can compete with Otis Redding. Or James Brown and Stevie Wonder. I really like Magic Sam — he’s a blues player from the west side of Chicago — and John Lee Hooker. Muddy Waters! Dr. John and Professor Longhair. Booker T and the MGs. Wilson Pickett…”
In Coleman’s office in the back corridors of the law school, green leather couches, wooden furniture and bookshelves with titles like “Practical Reason and Norms” suggest that the professor spends more time contemplating the nature of corrective justice than Belle and Sebastian’s latest record. A photograph of a long-haired, younger version of him betrays the truth: Coleman is a music junkie.
Coleman’s obsession with music has occasionally worked its way into his career. He used to teach a class at the University of Arizona called The Philosophy of Rock and Roll, in which he compared the songs of Bob Dylan (“He can’t speak English, but he’s a genius”) to poetry, the Beatles to short stories and the music of Lou Reed to novels.
Unsurprisingly, Coleman prefers live music to recorded. The most amazing concert that he ever saw — “Am I allowed to say that I was doing LSD at the time?” — was Pink Floyd at Milwaukee County Stadium. It had been pouring during the entire show when, just as the band began to play ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’ the rain stopped and the moon rose over the stadium. “It’s the closest I’ve ever come to believing in God. Or the Weather Channel,” Coleman said.
Coleman listens to four or five hours of music every day in his office, in the car, and at home. While his children were growing up, Coleman tried to expose them to as much music as possible. “You might think your father is a whack job, but you can’t help it if music is seductive,” Coleman laughs. He certainly succeeded. One son held a job at Newbury Records and now keeps his father up to date on the Next Big Thing; two other children are in a band called Murder Mystery.
Coleman insists on the importance of how you listen to music. He writes reviews of new music and of high-end audio equipment for the website bmoons.com. He scoffs at mp3s and CDs, choosing instead to play the music on his computer through an external digital/analog converter (a system which costs about $5,000). Murder Mystery records everything on two-inch magnetic tape. “All analog, like God intended,” he sighs.
Although he owns between 10 and 15 different electric guitars, ranging from an unplayable ’72 Thinline Fender to a valuable 1959 Esquire, Coleman understands that he is more of a fan than a musician. His passion for music doesn’t translate well into artistic skill. “When I play the blues it’s completely not believable. It’s like blues for Jews,” he says.
Still, Coleman seems wistful about what might have been had philosophy of law been the hobby and music the profession.
“Other than buy myself a sports car and see my kids succeed, I’d really like to buy myself a National guitar from the 1930s and learn how to play slide guitar well,” Coleman muses. “Or to come back as a black blues player. An incredible black blues player.”