Sound Off

A San Antonio attorney talks playing rock and R&B songs with lawyer band the Court Jesters.

Interview by Eric Quitugua

In Recess Major
Above: Three of the Court Jesters began in the ‘80s and returned to performing as the Court Jesters in 2005. Back row from left: Frank Menchaca, Doug Walsdorf, Judge Sol?Casseb, Shawn Smith, Brett Rowe, and Ruben Barrera. Front row from left: Steve Barrera, Bobby Trevino, Dave Parent, and Joe Casseb. Photograph courtesy of Neka Scarbrough-Jenkins.

When Ruben R. Barrera isn’t trading arguments in a courtroom, the San Antonio-based attorney is trading eights with the Court Jesters, a rock and R&B cover band of lawyers. A fixture of the San Antonio legal community’s social events, the Court Jesters have played other public and private gigs, including a spot with Huey Lewis and the News. Barrera laid down the trumpet with an early version of the band in the mid-’80s and with its rebirth in 2005.

Why the name Court Jesters?
Well, I wish I could take credit for that but I can’t. That was absolutely Joe Casseb who came up with that name. If you were to meet Joe, you would know that Joe is witty, quick with comebacks, and one of the most clever people I’ve met in my life. We thought, That’s a perfect name. What else would you call a bunch of lawyers that are musicians? They’re court jesters.


How do you choose what you want to cover?
Since the beginning, the band was always billed as a horn-driven rock band. And because it’s been billed that way, we always try to focus on arrangements that highlight all the various elements of the band. We don’t pick a song that’s essentially a guitar song and throw in horns as an afterthought. No. We try to pick songs where the horns have a prominent role, as well as the guitar, keyboards, and vocals. Basically, we focus on more equitable instrumental roles in a song, which is why, as an example, we perform some Chicago songs because they’re a group that welcomed every instrument in the band and made sure that everybody had equal time.


What got you interested in playing?
It’s a combination of the Beatles, Herb Alpert, Al Hirt, and classical music. Plus I had a cousin who was a trumpet player and a band director. When I was a kid, my parents would take us to all sorts of social occasions where you would have a band. In South Texas culture, quinceañeras are popular, and the bands that were there always had a number of trumpets, saxophones, and trombones. There was just something about the trumpet I liked. It was a good, clean sound that sounded right for my ears.


A few years ago your band opened for Huey Lewis and the News. How did that happen and what was that like?
It was fun. It all began as the result of a radio contest. They wanted to have a battle of the bands and the winner would be the opener for Huey Lewis and the News at the Majestic Theatre in downtown San Antonio. It was a series of mini concerts that we had to play at this club in town. We wound up being the winners of the battle of the bands. Our shtick of being a lawyer band helped, and we had a horn section and none of the other bands did. They were all talented, but none of the other bands could do what we could do.

On the day of the concert, there were strict rules about what we could do. We only had 20 to 25 minutes. We had to keep the chatter down to a bare minimum. But it was an enormous amount of fun. We got to spend time backstage with Huey and the band and see how they perform from that perspective. Sitting in the audience and looking at the band, you can’t really tell how deep the band is set up.

In Recess Minor
The Court Jesters having some fun on a photo shoot in San Antonio. On October 30, 2011, the band opened for Huey Lewis and the News at the Majestic Theatre. Photograph courtesy of Neka Scarbrough-Jenkins.

What was the crowd like?
When the lights came on, we looked out at the audience and I swear when we hit that downbeat on the first note, 90 percent of the theater was full. By the time Huey arrived, of course, 100 percent of the theater was full. We fully understand a lot of people were there to see Huey Lewis, but they didn’t have to arrive as early as they did to see the opening act. So the fact that you had this enormous audience when we started playing and even before we started playing, I thought, Well, I guess really a lot of them are here to see us. It was a huge honor. We were comforted by the fact that our friends and fans were there to support us.


How does performing as a musician stack up with performing as an attorney in a courtroom?
Sometimes you’re either looking at the judge or you’re looking at the jury and you realize you’re not connecting at all. So you need to sort of reboot your arguments very, very quickly. Well, music was a great training ground because once I started playing professionally, we would typically have a set list. I remember one night we were in this huge hall—it probably had about 1,000 people in it. After two or three songs, we realized the band was not connecting with the crowd. So we needed to alter the set list. That’s happened many times in my musical career, where you had to do the fancy foot shuffle and alter what you’re doing to reach the audience, or in this case, reach a judge or jury.


How do you balance your time with the band and your law practice?
We try to hold at least one rehearsal a week. We often play twice a month. Saturday gigs don’t impact our Monday through Friday legal practice. Once in awhile we’ll have a mid-week gig or a Friday night gig and those are always tougher.

Over the past two or three years, we have, out of necessity, recruited subs that help us when we absolutely cannot make a gig. You might be in the middle of a trial. Brett Rowe is a resident medical malpractice lawyer and he’s in trial a lot. At times, I, in effect, sub for Brett or Doug Walsdorf when they cannot attend a gig because I play trumpet, flugelhorn, and trombone. But if I can’t be at a gig, we have a trombone player that’ll come in and play for me. Same thing with the guitar, bass, drums, saxophone, and keyboards.

It’s a tough balance. The legal practice always takes precedence, but we work really hard at integrating into that legal lifestyle our musical activity, which we look at as therapy.TBJ

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