Studs Terkel (1912-2008) was a Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago author and radio personality. His first book was “Giants of Jazz” in 1957, and in 1959 he accidentally gave some youngsters’ old-style jazz band a name. The band is still around. “You’re a bunch of moldy figs,” he told some teens who were practicing while he visited the house of a woman who worked with him on his Chicago FM radio show.
He explained to her son and his friends that it was a derogatory term used by swing musicians in the 1940s for those who played out-of-fashion, uncool New Orleans jazz. The bandleader was 16-year-old drummer Jim Field, a junior at Maine Township High School in Park Ridge, Ill. “We decided then to call the band the Mouldy Figs,” Field says today, and he used the British spelling to add a little class. Now, 57 years after he had that inspiration, and 43 years after he brought it to full flower in Minnesota, Jim Field is stepping down from active management of the Mouldy Figs for health reasons. A celebration in honor of his continuing contribution to Minnesota’s jazz reputation is planned for Sunday, July 31 at Shamrocks Grill and Pub, 995 W. 7th St., Saint Paul, 651-228-9925. After playing gigs in suburban Chicago and at the banjo sing-along club Your Father’s Mustache, learning washboard from a banjoist who had played with Louis Armstrong, earning a college degree and starting a civilian career, Field moved to Minnesota in 1970 to take a job as the director of the YMCA Street Work Program in the Twin Cities. He brought along the washboard he bought for $1.50 in 1959 (and still plays today) and formed a new Mouldy Figs band in 1973 to play at Fiorito’s and the Lower Levee Lounge nightclubs in St. Paul.
In their heyday, the Figs were a repertory group that included 30 to 40 musicians who could form several bands of three to eight pieces on any given date, covering bookings as needed. Field has always worked in younger musicians to carry on the tradition: The most recent regular Figs are Randy Grist and Doug Haining. Most Figs also play with other bands, and over the decades the group has included musicians who have become well-known in wider circles. A few are trumpeter Red Wolfe, bassist Bill Gordon, clarinetist Kim Cusack, banjoists Fern Dale and Debbie Schreyer, multi-instrumentalists Bruce Allard, Bill Evans, Russ Peterson, Jim Torok, Fred Richardson, Jim ten Bensel. Gigs over the past 43 years have included countless private parties and corporate events, church services, civic festivals, the Minnesota State Fair, riverboat cruises, political fund-raisers, entertaining fans for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and St. Paul Saints, an appearance as guest artists with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and in a Field-organized contingent of 75 Twin Cities jazz musicians who performed at the 1982 pre-opening party for the Mall of America, headlined by Ray Charles. “We always have fun and family in mind,” Field says.
Field has long been active in the St. Paul Rotary Club and brought the Figs to more than 30 elementary schools to give educational concerts on “The History of River Music” in 2003, the band’s 30th anniversary year. He also was a key figure in a Rotary Club multi-year project to enable people to obtain safe drinking water at a village in the Guyana jungle, which he visited annually.
The Figs have made three professional recordings: “Figs Live at the Bungalow” (LP 1988, CD reissue 2002), “Have Yourself a Mouldy Little Christmas” (1996), and “Don’t Trust Any Band Under 30” (2003). Steady appearances currently are the first Tuesday of each month at the Bungalow Inn in Lakeland, MN. And alternate Sundays at the Mainstreet Bar & Grill in Hopkins and Shamrocks on West 7th Street in St. Paul. The schedule is on www.mouldyfigs.com.
Field is staying active in music, keeping up the rhythm of the Figs on drums, washboard or tuba and playing tuba as a regular member of the Pig’s Eye Jass Band in St. Paul. But he is handing over the administrative duties to Debbie Schreyer, a full-time banjo player and teacher, and her husband, Tom Owens, a bassist, washboard player and vocalist. Schreyer comes from a musical family: Her late father, Lowell Schreyer, was a nationally known banjoist and historian, and her brother, Ted, leads the Blue Ox Jazz Babies in Mankato. Lowell and Debbie Schreyer are both members of the National Four-String Banjo Hall of Fame. Tom Owens is a former St. Paul police officer, later an excursion riverboat pilot, and now a full-time musician.