No one would mistake Courtroom Nine in the federal courthouse, where the Boston Marathon bomber trial is underway, for a piano bar.
Those in the witness box, testifying how the bombs blew off their limbs or drained life from their loved ones, have moved many in the courtroom to tears.
But a moment comes every so often when the relentlessly grim proceedings are halted and the atmosphere is suddenly and improbably transformed into that of a cocktail lounge.
When Judge George A. O’Toole Jr., who is presiding over the trial, calls the lawyers for a sidebar, he wants to prevent the jury and reporters from overhearing their discussions. So an attendant flips on the sound system.
Suddenly Courtroom Nine fills with the arabesques of Art Tatum, the great jazz pianist. His fingers fly up and down the keyboard. One day he might be playing “Body and Soul,” the next, “Love For Sale.” Lately, “Have You Met Ms. Jones?” has become part of the repertoire.
Initially the music was jarring. But it is wonderfully soulful, so graceful and light that it has a way of diverting the mind and even lifting the spirits.
Judge O’Toole selects the music himself, said a courthouse denizen, who wished to remain anonymous. The judge, a laconic and no-nonsense jurist, is a jazz fan, it turns out. And he plays the trumpet. He was appointed to the bench 20 years ago by a saxophone-playing president, Bill Clinton.
Mr. Tatum, who was nearly blind and largely self-taught, died in 1956 at age 47. He is one of Judge O’Toole’s personal favorites. But that is not the only reason he airs Tatum tunes in the courtroom.
“He felt jazz was the appropriate music, as an original American music style, to be played in an American courtroom,” the court denizen said.
Courtroom Nine is one of five, out of 27, in the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse that has the technology to play music; the other 22 still can play only white noise. But that is changing. As the systems are upgraded, the others will be gradually able to play music, too, raising the possibility that someday one may hear a cacophony of sounds and styles as each judge spins his own favorite discs.
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Thanks so much for your help in getting the word out about Tuesday’s presentation with Nate Chinen and Steve Smith. We had 115 attendees, which is the most ever! We ended up moving the event to the sanctuary. They did a great job.