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J B Figi: 1937-1999
J B Figi
Writer, critic

Born: May 22, 1937 in Chicago, Illinois
Died: May 30, 1999 in Chicago, Illinois

An Influential Chicago Critic

by John Litweiler
Copyright © 1999 John Litweiler

Figi, J B J.B. Figi, the Chicago jazz critic, endured his first heart attack in 1983, while hiking southern Wisconsin hills with his fiance, Rita Hernandez. There were two other heart attacks after he married Rita the next year, and though they forced him to leave his job and eventually almost ended his writing, Figi's heart - his love, his vital force and intelligence - persisted, even into his last year, when he knew he was dying of leukemia and pancreatic cancer. He died on May 30, 1999, barely 62 years old.

He was not a prolific writer, but he certainly was an influential one. His work first began appearing in small magazines in the early 1960s - poetry, fiction, chapters excerpted from his novels Hassan and Heathen Brown - especially in the lively literary magazine December.

It was a time when he also began writing the Chicago modern jazz column for Coda magazine and liner notes for record companies, most notably Chicago's Delmark label. He also wrote for John and Leni Sinclair's short-lived Change, which was devoted to the new jazz of the mid-'60s.

His first Down Beat article was about Bobby Blue Bland in 1969; among his later Down Beat articles is the best interview with Cecil Taylor that anyone's done; during the '80s he was one of the magazine's staff record reviewers. The novels were not published and in fact, Heathen Brown was never finished, while the book publisher who was arranging to bring out Hassan went out of business instead.

Meanwhile, the weekly Chicago Reader was founded in an abandoned South Side townhouse next door to the townhouse where the Art Ensemble of Chicago squatted, and Figi's writings - about jazz, Chicago's Muslims, and African-Americans who left the violence of the inner city to live in rural downstate Illinois - were the best things that popular newspaper published in its early years.

"'All the dark music smoldering in my head for years had been given tongue and thrown back at me, still warm and steaming,' James Bey
wrote, describing an initial encounter with the music of alto saxophonist/composer Ornette Coleman," began a 1973 article by J.B. Figi, who added, "But I cried the first time I heard Coleman.'"

There are two matters of interest about those lines. First, James Bey was a pseudonym that Figi used to sign his own articles once in awhile, so this alleged quote was poetic license, one of his peculiar whimsies. Second is the power of his response to the music, for he felt good music strongly: Jazz was not something to listen to passively, but to participate in emotionally, physically, intellectually.

He was born in Chicago on May 22, 1937; he lived in Texas for a year and a half while his father was in the service, and mostly grew up in Monroe, Wisconsin, where he heard jazz at night on the radio from the old 50,000-watt, clear-channel Chicago stations. He went to Madison and Chicago to hear live jazz while he was a high school kid, and he settled in Chicago not long after graduation.

On his first night in his new city he heard Lester Young play in a nightclub; Young remained his favorite saxophonist for the rest of his life. The jazz life of Chicago drew him in - the music, the people, the ways of talking and thinking and feeling. He attended musical events all over the city, hung out at bookstores and the Jazz Record Mart, even shared a crib with Dodo Marmarosa for a brief spell.

He married his high school sweetheart, but in his younger days he was a hopeless romantic, and he went on to woo two other women; one became the mother of his first daughter, while the other, Grazie, became his second wife. While married to Grazie he converted to Islam; formerly called Jerry, he became Jamil for the rest of his life. She was in the travel business, so the two of them traveled to the Middle East, North Africa, Paris.

The new Chicago jazz that emerged in the '60s grabbed Jamil by the throat. He began bugging Bob Koester, owner of the Jazz Record Mart and Delmark Records, to record the new musicians who were forming the AACM, and he roped anyone who would listen, including Koester's employees like me and Chuck Nessa, into going to AACM concerts in South Side auditoriums. So when Delmark began recording Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman in 1966, it was Figi who wrote the album liners; his notes to Mitchell's Sound were reprinted in Tom Piazza's anthology of outstanding program notes.

No doubt Figi was a more gifted writer than most of us, but there was more to his craft than a gift. Writing was a physical activity with him. At work on an article or a poem, he would stalk the floor, pound the walls, curse, throw things. And what resulted from his struggles were phrases and passages that illuminated the sensuous essence of an artist's work.

About Bud Powell: "Remember those frosting eggs with a window in one end, through which you peep into a dainty, serene little paper and fluff landscape? Bud's has a landscape all its own - iron cacti, leaden earth, thorn trees, strange hues at the horizon, frozen streets, tumbleweeds, a moon that won't thaw, and in the center of that blasted heath, Bud, a gnarled, gnomic tree through which the wind twists song."

A Malachi Favors solo: "You can almost smell his bass going up in smoke." About Joseph Jarman: "The many-handed, in each a horn, when just one -his alto - is a variable instrument; a flamethrower to scorch away the weeds of unkempt minds, a torch to twist up thorny sculpture, or even something tender as a temple-bell.''

Or the crowd of veteran bebop lovers at a reunion set: "Throwing off coats, uncovering bosoms like gingerbread rising in the pan. Ordering Cutty, malt liquor, Lancer's, champagne. If they seem prosperous, self-assured, it's because they are winners, knowing that the losers of their original number are prematurely dead, strung out, in the joint, or among the walking weird."

This last was especially important to Figi. Jazz was a community as well as a music, and he had always a special affection for the jazz audiences that he grew up with. While his writings about '60s free jazz exerted the most influence, especially on other Chicago journalists, he loved jazz and blues of all earlier eras and had a special fondness for Chicago traditions - the bop, stomp, and sentiment of the Gene Ammons school, for instance, always moved him.

But he lost interest in most revival bop and especially fusion music ("elegant, stylized music which has the cold beauty of printed circuits"), and was highly selective about later "outside" jazz: Fred Anderson, Steve McCall, a few others were always favorites, but otherwise he was usually uninterested in either free improvisation or wholly composed works.

As to his aesthetic interests in general, civilization had developed in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia while Europe was still in a state of savagery; Figi was interested in these older civilizations rather than in Western art. His home was decorated with kilims, Persian rugs, Sufi costumes, and his record collection was filled with recordings from western and northern Africa for a good many years before the fashion for world music.

Organic art grows out of the community. Like blues before it, jazz, Figi believed, declined when it ceased to be the living expression of the African-American community. This was simply a fact of life, not something to be mourned, for every art form has its life span, its cycle of formation, maturity, and decline.

For most of his adult life Figi worked as an insurance underwriter. A medium-sized, muscular, tattooed individual, he changed considerably in personality after meeting a new, young employee in his office, Rita Hernandez: His gruff intensity mellowed, while his generosity and his old sense of humor, which still could be wonderfully cruel, remained.

After they were married he bought his first home; they became the parents of a daughter, Anisa, and his second son Michael and Rita's brother Tony rented quarters there, too; on occasion, two grandsons also lived in the house (Figi also had an older son and daughter).

Meanwhile, after the Jazz Institute of Chicago reorganized in 1977, Figi became one of the directors, planning concerts, working on the Chicago Jazz Festival, interviewing Rafael Donald Garrett, Joe Segal, and Phil Cohran for the archives. Poor health shadowed his last 15 years. But a poem, unpublished until now, that he wrote in his last year is, like so much of his writing, a perfect portrait:

Pledged to leukemia,
I tiptoe the rope
held by Allah's sweet breath.

You could blow me away
with a hiccup
or glimpse of hips.

But squint through my navel:
behind the liver
lurks a mean gator
that hates to be awakened
and remembers how to bite.

Poem copyright 1999 Rita Figi

John Litweiler
John Litweiler is a highly regarded jazz critic based in Chicago. He is the author of The Freedom Principle and Ornette Coleman: A Harmolodic Life.

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With 1 reader comment, posted April 20, 2007