04/06/10 By Nate Chinen
Figs & Stones
Some time ago Michael Steinman, a professor of English at Nassau Community College, was out to dinner on vacation when the conversation turned to jazz. Hearing of his love for the music, someone at another table proudly claimed that he had been at Carnegie Hall in the early ’60s, for a concert that included tenor titans John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. “I told him my taste in jazz went back a bit further than that,” Steinman recalls. “He looked at me and said, ‘Wait a minute. Are you a moldy fig?’”
The fact that you’re here, dear reader, probably means you know that them’s fightin’ words. To be seen as a moldy fig, at this point in jazz’s post-history, is to be lumped together with the loonies and curmudgeons, hopelessly out of step, terminally uncool. Like Renaissance faire habitués and Civil War reenactors, the moldy fig longs for some receding point on the timeline, striving to transplant its bygone values to an inhospitable soil. Jazz, for such a creature, is a firm ideal, lovingly and narrowly circumscribed.
What’s funny is the fact that “moldy fig” connotes two distinct jazz factions that should be fundamentally at odds. The term originally referred to the early jazz traditionalists who saw the music as having peaked in the 1920s. Soon it was also leveled at swing adherents who decried the advancing tide of bebop. Both meanings were in circulation in the 1940s, reflecting a pair of schisms in jazz at the time. As Bernard Gendron once put it, in a definitive essay on the subject: “The first of these conflicts pitted swing against the newly revitalized New Orleans jazz that it had previously supplanted, and the second against the bebop avant-garde movement that threatened to make it obsolescent.”
Pluck in the face of obsolescence is what unites the moldy figs of both persuasions today: the Benny Goodman fan club, say, with members of the Sidney Bechet Society. The term has even become a badge of honor among some listeners—though not for Steinman, who runs a blog called Jazz Lives. “Traditionalism to me is not tuba and banjo,” he writes in an explanatory note, distancing himself from the moldiest of fig trappings. But he’s clear about the music he loves—“[My] heroes include Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Ruby Braff, Eddie Condon,” he writes—and he uses his platform to champion it.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the moldy-fig legacy as it applies to the next wave of jazz traditionalists. While the music has advanced (I’ll refrain from writing “evolved”), the shadow of obsolescence has been lengthening. It no longer stops at the breakthroughs of bebop, or the refinement of modal jazz. So even though jazz’s mid-century modern constituency still has a lot to be thankful for—the Jazz Icons DVD series, for one, and present-day paragons like tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander—the center of the music no longer reflects that reality.
Perhaps you can identify. Depending on your tastes, you might be among the jazz diehards disillusioned with what’s become of the jazz media, with its fetish for newness. You nod your head when you hear of the death of jazz, as it’s commonly understood. Well, don’t look now, but you might be a mossy stone.
Allow me to explain. A mossy stone is a jazz adherent whose core stylistic allegiance is to the music pioneered in the 1940s, streamlined in the ’50s and diversified in the ’60s. This region of inquiry begins with bebop and ends with free jazz, cutting off at the early stirrings of fusion. Wynton Marsalis, once disparaged by critic Gene Santoro as a “latter-day moldy fig,” actually fits this bill: Though vocal in his advocacy of swing and earlier jazz, he’s a modernist at heart, as his own track record proves. (Listen again to his last few albums on Blue Note.) But you could despise Marsalis and still be a mossy stone. All it takes is a tacit understanding that jazz innovation peaked by about 1967, and that nothing of real, lasting value has changed in the music since.
Right about now you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of a mossy stone. Simple: I made the term up, while pondering the distance between results in critics’ polls and readers’ polls. Obviously I’m riffing on the aphorism “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” with its valorization of forward motion. I’m also invoking the Rolling Stones, and rock, with its progressive connotations. A mossy stone finds no traction in the straight-eighth groove and fusionlike flow of so many jazz albums today. He or she appreciates the Monkish aspects of a pianist like Robert Glasper or Jason Moran, but not so much the hip-hop inflections. You can be a mossy stone at any age—I bet there are more than a few working at the high school level—as long as you possess the same stubbornness exhibited by the moldy figs all those years ago.
As someone sympathetic to the mossy stone agenda—I too have wondered why young musicians can’t occasionally carve up a standard, or just swing a little—let me offer a reassurance. Moss may be disconcertingly similar to mold, but that’s fine. As Gendron observed, regarding the two schisms in 1940s jazz: “Both contests were fought on much of the same discursive terrain.” Likewise, the mossy stone and the moldy fig have two very different record collections, but they’re cousins in many respects.
Of course moldy figs have had a longer time to refine their contrarianism, honing an admirable combination of staunch defiance and pragmatic resignation. When I mentioned my new bit of jazz taxonomy to Steinman, he picked up on this right away, despite his reflexive wariness about labels, especially those dreamt up by jazz critics.
“Have you read ‘Easter, 1916,’ the Yeats poem?” he asked. Yes, but it had been a while. When I consulted the text, I found its vivid image of a stone planted in a stream. The water moves, as do the reflections of clouds along its surface. A horse and rider splash along. “Minute by minute they live,” Yeats writes. “The stone’s in the midst of all.”