Moldy Figs and the Personal Essay

I just read a wonderful post by Cristina Nehring at Truthdig (via Koreanish) decrying the state of the modern American essay.  As a writer, I’ve always been particularly interested in personal essays, sometimes to a fault. (That academic paper I was supposed to write for my “Jazz in Film” class?  Yeah, turned it into a personal essay…)  Nehring makes some great points that really resonate, and highlight some of the issues I’m thinking about as I start this blog.

Essentially, Nehring makes the argument that essayists ought to write as generalists, not specialists.  Of course, a personal essay draws from one subjective experience, but if it doesn’t contain “an element of truth that we can put in our pocket and carry away,” then it is merely an exercise in navel-gazing.  I agree with her argument, and will work diligently to try to adhere to that standard here at Lubricity.  Nehring cites the danger of “narcissism of a particularly myopic sort” that comes along with too much attention to one’s own subjective experience.  She hit the nail on the head as far as why I dropped my English major halfway through college!

Nehring points out that, in the modern conecption of the “good” essay, the author leaves “a gun-blazing attack on social trend, a film, a book, or a library of books” to the journalists (regarded with condescension by anthologists).  Of course, much of the writing about jazz comes from those whose background is in journalism; the outlet for in-depth writing about jazz has come mostly in the form of magazines like Jazz Times and Down Beat.  But I’m not sure that these forums have offered the best venues for generalist discussions and broad thinking about jazz, either.

Nehring cites navel-gazing timidity as the problem that plagues modern essays; I would suggest that specialization and fetishism are the enemies of modern jazz writing.  Since the bebop generation got “cool” and moved jazz into the discourse of high art, those who represent it in writing have become shrouded in the curtain of their own tastes.  The question of how jazz is defined is always raging between various groups trying to exclude each other from the music’s heritage.  Their legacy lives on today in the New Jazz Studies movement, which seeks to study and define jazz through poststructuralism.  A few people, however, are making the argument for an inclusive definition of jazz, and I support this effort wholeheartedly.  There is immense beauty to be found both in low-fi Fletcher Henderson 78s and the downloadable innovations of The Bad Plus, to name two disparate examples.  But few people who obsess over their 78 collections have even heard of Ethan Iverson, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that a majority of The Bad Plus fans have heard anything by Henderson.  (Iverson recently took a stand on this issue, chiding a group of pianists for their lack of familiarity with James P. Johnson, discussed here by Peter Hum.)

Jazz discourse, I believe, still hasn’t recovered from the “Moldy Fig” debate which began in Down Beat in the 1940s.  A group of musicians in California, led by trombonist Kid Ory, spearheaded a revival of interest in Dixieland music and hot jazz from the 1920s.  A number of Down Beat critics, led by Leonard Feather, dubbed the revivalists “moldy figs” for choosing to play traditional jazz instead of following along with the innovations being ushered into the music by bebop virtuosos such as Charlie Parker.  Everyone took a side: you were either with the “moldy figs” or the beboppers.  This split led to the further divergences of category and discourse that have plagued jazz ever since.  And of course, it led to a lot of great music being overlooked.  My favorite Jack Teagarden album, for example, was recorded in 1961.  And have you heard Ellington’s Sacred Concerts?  They certainly challenge the notion that his best work came with the Blanton-Webster band in the early ’40s.

Nehring ends her essay with some optimism, essentially claiming, “it can’t get any worse” (and making a good case for it that involves cow analogies.)  Many have been quoting Chicken Little with regards to the state of jazz for a long time, but I believe that we are moving past the nadir of jazz discourse.

I agree with Nehring’s central thesis: that essayists write from a perspective of generalism, not specialism.  Those of us in the jazz community ought to hold ourselves to this same standard.  I believe that requires a particular openness to different sounds and a letting-go of the terminology that divides jazz into categories.  It also requires those of us in the younger generation of the jazz community to approach the older stuff with a sense of engagement and curiosity.  I also share her cautious optimism.  I hope that the increased accessibility for writing leads to more people trying to connect to one another through it.  I hope that it leads us away from the temptation of myopic narcissism.

I’ll end with an appeal to those of you who are reading this: if I post something and there’s nothing for you to “put in your pocket,” PLEASE say so in the comments!

UPDATE: Brilliant Corners just posted an argument for what should be next in jazz journalism that agrees with much of what I’ve written here.  Check it out for another view on the issue and some more interesting links.

About Alex Rodríguez

Writer, Organizer, Trombonist
This entry was posted in Jazz Journalism, Resisting Definition and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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