• The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    April 14, 2011. Posted by Alex Rodriguez.

    The first known recording that uses the word "Jazz"

    This is the second post in a new biweekly blog feature, You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter.

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    Where did your favorite four-letter-word "Jazz" come from? Not where you think!

    When it comes to the origin of the word “jazz,” it seems that each person simply believes what she or he wants to. Some people would like the word to come from Africa, so they firmly believe the stories that support that. Others want it to be an African American word, so they look for that. But professional linguists have been on the case for decades, and the real story is a lot less black and white.

    The BOTTOM LINES in this discussion are:

    1. Nobody knows for sure the etymology of the word “jazz”!! (Even the professionals have not found an earlier word or words, from English or any other language, that “morphed” into the word “jazz.”) However it might (please remember—“might,” not definitely) come from a slang word, “jasm” (more on that later).

    2. The word does not appear to have been invented by African Americans and is not from New Orleans. It seems to have originated among white people (European Americans), and the earliest printed uses of it are in California baseball writing, where it means “lively, energetic.”  (Note: The word still has this meaning, as in “Let’s jazz this up”!) The earliest one yet found was in 1912, as you can see below. This text was discovered by researcher George A. Thompson, and sent courtesy of etymologist Professor Gerald Cohen.

    The page is hard to read, so I have retyped the text, with clarifying comments [in brackets]:


    "I got a new curve this year," softly murmured Henderson yesterday, "and I'm goin' to pitch one or two of them tomorrow.  I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can't do anything with it." [That is, it's too lively for them to hit it.] As prize fighters who invent new punches are always the first to get their's Ben will probably be lucky if some guy don't hit that new Jazzer ball a mile today.  It is to be hoped that some unintelligent compositor does not spell that the Jag ball.  That's what it must be at that if it wobbles.  [That is, don't confuse this with a drunken "jag.">

    First use of the word jazz in print

    3. Whites started to call the new music “jazz” in Chicago (and possibly California) in 1915. Because it was a new word, and it was slang, spellings varied at first (jazz, jas, jaz, jass, jasz), but since 1918 it has been “jazz.”

    4. White people meant the word “jazz” as a compliment (meaning that the music was lively and exciting), not an insult!

    With that in mind, let's have a listen to the first recording that uses the word "jazz” in its lyrics:

    Sheet music for the first known recording that uses the word "Jazz"
    Sheet music for the first known recording that uses the word "Jazz"

    That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland

    Collins and Harlan (baritone Arthur Collins and tenor Byron Harlan) were a popular white duo who used the minstrel-style "black dialect" that was accepted at the time but is distasteful today.

    This recording, made for Thomas Edison's company on Dec. 1, 1916, of "That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland" (music by Henry Marshall , lyrics by Gus Kahn), is the first recorded song to use the word "jazz"—it appears in the title (spelled "jas", at the top of the page) and they also sing it in the lyrics.

    After they sing, they do a spoken dialog where Harlan, playing a black woman in minstrel style, asks "What *is* a jas band?" After that, the band plays a wild interlude, and then the duo sings some more.

    For more about Arthur Collins, click here.

    Listen to the podcast for answers to the following questions:

    - How was jazz the music received in the late 1910s and early 1920s?

    - How did the Oxford English Dictionary, the most respected source for word origins, make a mistake about the date of the word “jazz”?

    - What about the sexual connotations of the word “jazz”?

    A few additional details:

    - All of the popular stories about the origin of the word are wrong—and I do mean all! One of the most ridiculous is the idea presented in the Ken Burns documentary series, that jazz is short for the jasmine perfume that “all” New Orleans prostitutes wore. (Remember, the word is not from New Orleans—and there are many other reasons that this makes no sense.) Similarly, there is no truth to the ideas that “jazz” came from “jasbo,” “jaser,””jasper”—all are wrong, and based on nothing but hearsay.

    - Professionals have not found a definite origin of the word “jazz” -- perhaps they never will. However, some of them favor the idea that it developed from a slang word “jasm,” which has been found as far back as the Civil War in writings by European Americans. “Jasm” (also spelled “gism”) meant “energy, spirit, pep,” and, from that, it also had the connotation of sexuality and semen. The reason some professionals favor this as a source for the word “jazz” is that “jazz” also had similar meanings, and from that also developed the connotation of sex.

    - Most of the original New Orleans jazz musicians (born between, say, 1885 and 1901) said that the word “jazz” was not used in New Orleans. They were adding improvisation to ragtime and other kinds of music, so they would refer to it as their version of “ragtime,” etc. They said they first heard the word “jazz” up north (usually meaning Chicago).

    For Further Reading:

    Porter, Jazz: A Century of Change (Schirmer, 1997; reprinted by Thomson, 2004), Chapter One.

    Wikipidea on Jazz the word

    Tim Gracyk on early jazz in Tin Pan Alley

    Come back on Thursday, April 28 for the next episode, "Jazz Myths: Part One"! (UPDATE: now online!)

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