Some history might be needed here. “A fig,” “a Moldy Fig,” even “a Mouldy Figge,” is now-archaic language invented during the Forties, when jazz found itself divided into warring factions called Dixieland and Bebop. This divisiveness may have splintered the music and its audiences irrevocably. Much of the noisy conflict was fomented by journalists and publicists seeking to attract audiences through controversy. At this distance, we know that GROOVIN’ HIGH is only WHISPERING with a new blouse, but people allowed themselves to ignore this. I find the poet Philip Larkin very endearing in his art and his vinegary energies, but his jazz prose embodies this point of view, where the world had reached an artistic peak in 1932 with the Rhythmakers recordings and had gone steadily downhill. I agree with the first part of this formulation but not the second.
I began my devotional listening as a Fig, so it took a long gradual period of contemplative immersion before I could understand that, say, John Coltrane wasn’t The Enemy out to destroy the music I loved. In truth, I was never an extremist but I had strong, narrow likes and dislikes. I remember having a brief conversation with another student in a middle-school Music Appreciation class who was deeply immersed in the New Thing — this was forty-plus years ago and the new thing was Archie Shepp, and the conversation went like this:
“Alan,” which might not be his name, but is a good guess: “I hear you like jazz.”
Me (brightening at having found a fellow subversive): “Oh, yes, I do!”
“Alan”: “Do you listen to Archie Shepp?”
Me (horrified that he hadn’t mentioned Louis, and coming up with a wise-acre New Yorker rejoinder): “Archie Shepp?! I say it’s spinach, and I say to hell with it!”
“Alan”: “Well, the hell with you!”
So goes critical discourse at its finest!
I would like to boast that I’ve seen the light and the scales have dropped from my eyes, but if you told me I had to choose only one jazz recording to spend eternity with, it still might be AFTER YOU’VE GONE by the Blue Note Jazzmen, even though I can understand and appreciate music that would have perplexed and repelled me in my youth. And the music was always there, I just didn’t get it.
This self-scrutiny is provoked by a phone conversation I had yesterday with Bob Rusch (or RDR), editor and chief spiritual guide of the quarterly journal devoted to Creative Improvised Music, CADENCE. Full disclosure requires me to say that I write reviews for CADENCE, and I continue to admire the journal’s honesty. And working with Bob has always been a pleasurable lesson in Emersonian candor: when I have felt an inexplicable need to tactfully cloak the truth in polite words, he has always asked, “Why?”
If you’ve never read CADENCE, you have been missing something special and rare. See for yourself (www.cadencebuilding.com).
In the course of our conversation — we speak infrequently, but over the past five years it has always been both bracing and affectionate — Bob said gently that he thought I was “getting more figgish,” and I agreed. But it made me think, and perhaps my experience will ring true with my readers.
There used to be “the jazz record industry,” and I am not talking about sixty-five years ago, the Commodore Music Shop, and listening booths. Ten years ago, perhaps, there were many more active companies producing compact discs. (If you want to have a sobering experience, casually inspect the spines of any fifty CDs in your library and note how many of those labels no longer exist.) This, of course, has to do with the economy, an aging audience, and more.
It has had an double-edged result. On one hand, no more new issues from Chiaroscuro, no more Pablo, fewer ways for musicians to be encouraged by a label. But because labels no longer exist, many energetic musicians have gone into business for themselves and produce their own discs.
This can be a boon: musicians can record what they want, have it sound the way they want, without the interference of recording engineers or the heads of record companies . . . and splendid personal statements emerge. But this asks musicians to be both courageous and affluent (or at least credit-worthy): a self-produced CD might require a $10,000 investment that the artist might get back over ten years of selling the discs one at a time on the gig. We should all live and be well!
(Musician joke: “My latest CD is a million-seller. I’ve got a million in my cellar.”)
Many players I know have made a virtue of necessity, but I think many of them look back nostalgically to the dear dead days when they got a call to go to a studio at noon to make a date, they played their hearts out, they got paid, and eight months later they knew that the disc they had appeared on was being sold all over the world. Yes, their control over the music was compromised, their pay was a percentage of the profit, but someone else was handling all the annoying business.
What this means for someone like myself, reviewing CDs, is that a good deal of what I am asked to listen to is by artists new to me (a good thing) who are offering their own music (potentially a good thing). And occasionally it leads me to sit up in my chair and say, “By God, (s)he’s got it!” Melissa Collard was new to me when I first heard her OLD-FASHIONED LOVE, and she is one of those singers whose work I most treasure. Mark Shane, Kevin Dorn, Dawn Lambeth, Marc Caparone, Danny Tobias, Lyle Ritz, Andy Brown, Petra van Nuis, and more.
But much of what I hear is both competent yet entirely forgettable. I know that Lips Page said, “The material is immaterial,” but hand me a CD full of original compositions by a player and I wonder, “Gee, you’ve already decided that there’s nothing new for you to say on the blues or on I’VE TOLD EV’RY LITTLE STAR?” Funny, that hasn’t occurred to Sonny Rollins.
And it is sad to receive a CD by a singer or musician, male or female, where great effort has gone into burnishing the exterior at the expense of other things. When the artist credits his or her hair stylist and wardrobe person first, I think, “Oh no. Repertoire, not manicure. No one listens to the cover.”
So my “figgishness” or “figitude” (both my own coinings) is a way to get back to what music means to me — a spiritual / intellectual / experience that makes me want to grin foolishly and shout exultantly. I would indeed rather hear a wonderful performance of an original composition by musicians I don’t know than a tired rendition of OUR BUNGALOW OF DREAMS, but I need to hear jazz that makes me remember why I began to listen to the music in the first place: joy, inventiveness, clear delight in being alive in the face of death. If your listening is purely an intellectual exercise and you find that gratifying, fine, but mine is tied up with the emotions. Is the music beautiful? Does it make me feel some strong emotion, preferably happiness? Can I admire the players?
So I close this post with a new example of FINEST FIG JAM — pure, organic, and locally sourced. It’s another YouTube clip from the lucky and generous SFRaeAnn of the Eldorado Serenaders, whose front line is Don Neely on reeds, Robert Young on reeds, trumpet, and vocal, Dave Frey, plectrum banjo, Jim Young, tenor banjo, Steven Rose, sousaphone, Stan Greenberg, percussion. This performance of BALTIMORE (one of those delightful songs-about-a-new-dance-craze) honors Bix and Wingy and Red, and I think this band is terribly, admirably brave to be shouting it out in a bookstore. “Fit audience, though few,” said Milton, but he never had to worry about the tip jar. It was recorded on October 25, 2009 at North Light Books in Cotati, California.