Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From? Follow a Trail of Clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter

Feb 26, 2018

When it comes to the origin of the word “jazz,” it seems that each person simply believes what she or he wants to.

Some 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. The venerable saxophonist, composer and educator Archie Shepp lived in Paris for many years, and he has not the slightest doubt that “jazz” is a French word. But professional linguists (scholars of languages and their history), etymologists (researchers of word origins) and lexicographers (dictionary researchers) have been on the case for decades, and the real story is far less simple. Let’s take a look.

The word “jazz” probably derives from the slang word “jasm,”which originally meant energy, vitality, spirit, pep. The Oxford English Dictionary, the most reliable and complete record of the English language, traces “jasm” back to at least 1860:

J. G. Holland Miss Gilbert's Career xix. 350   ‘She's just like her mother... Oh! she's just as full of jasm!’.. ‘Now tell me what “jasm” is.’.. ‘If you'll take thunder and lightening, and a steamboat and a buzz-saw, and mix 'em up, and put 'em into a woman, that's jasm.’

Note the discussion of what “jasm,” means, which suggests that it was fairly new, not in widespread use at the time. Some have suggested that it originated as a variant of “gism,” which has the same meaning and can be traced back a little further, to 1842. By the end of the 1800s, “gism” meant not only “vitality” but also “virility,” leading to the word being used as slang for “semen.”

But — and this is significant — although a similar evolution happened to the word “jazz,” which became slang for the act of sex, that did not happen until 1918 at the earliest. That is, the sexual connotation was not part of the origin of the word, but something added later. According to the etymologist Professor Gerald Cohen, the leading researcher of the word “jazz” (and author of a study summarizing his work to date; see below), it’s not even certain that “gism” and “jasm” are related. The research is still ongoing, and it’s quite possible that they are two independent words. In short, “jazz” probably comes from “jasm,” and let’s leave “gism” out of it.

"Ben's Jazz Curve," Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1912.

“Jazz” seems to have originated among white Americans, and the earliest printed uses are in California baseball writing, where it means “lively, energetic.”  (The word still carries this meaning, as in “Let’s jazz this up!”) The earliest known usage occurs on April 2, 1912, in an article discovered by researcher George A. Thompson, and sent to me courtesy of Dr. Cohen.

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

BEN'S JAZZ CURVE.

"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, he jokes, don't confuse this with a drunken "jag."]

Please also notice that in this very first printed use of the word, it is spelled “jazz.” So, the common belief that it was originally spelled “jass” is also false.  The word was spelled various ways at first, not always one way. What is true is that with a new word, especially slang, it sometimes takes a while for the spelling to become standardized. Victor Records said as much in its 1917 ad for the first recording by the Original Dixieland Jass (sic) Band, generally considered the first jazz record. The ad states, “Spell it Jass, Jas, Jaz, or Jazz—nothing can spoil a Jass band”!

When mistakes do occur in the OED, they are soon corrected. The dictionary once maintained that the word “jazz” was first documented on a recording in 1909, three years before the baseball reference.  But that was a mistake! They had confused two recordings of the same song made by the same artist, Cal Stewart. He made a recording in 1909 called “Uncle Josh in Society.” That does not use the word “jazz”. He recorded the same song in 1919 and added the word “jazz,” because by then everybody was using the word “jazz.”

Getting back to the verified occurrences in 1912, the word “jazz” appeared again in the L.A. Times on April 3. Then it was used in a series of baseball articles in the San Francisco Bulletin starting in March 1913. (Dr. Cohen explains that, despite the isolated L.A. occurrences, the word comes from San Francisco.) It's clear that the word was new, because the sports writer in San Francisco, “Scoop” Gleeson, felt that he needed to add, on March 6, 1913, this explanation:

What is the "jazz"? Why, it's a little of that "old life," the "gin-i-ker," the "pep," otherwise known as enthusiasalum.

(I think “gin-i-ker” means “full of gin.”)

Just a month later, on April 5, 1913, the same newspaper published a long article about the word “jazz,” noting its meaning and various spellings. “Jazz” clearly was a new word here, as the OED notes: “The existence of an article entitled ‘In praise of ‘jazz,’ a futurist word which has just joined the language’…suggests that the word was then a very recent innovation.”

But this 1913 article, like another one published by a press agent named Walter Kingsley four years later, was a bit of a spoof, including examples of the word that were meant to be comical, but have been assumed to be true by many readers since. So please be aware that, contrary to these articles, the word does not appear in any of John Milton's writings (in the late 1600s), nor in the writings of Lafcadio Hearn (who would at least seem a more likely candidate, having written in the late 1800s about New Orleans culture).

By 1915, jazz was being applied to a new kind of music in Chicago. The story of how the word may have migrated from California to Illinois is complicated, and will be covered in a future post. For now, suffice it to say that the Chicago papers were definitely referring to a music called "jazz" by mid-1915.

And soon there were songs about the new music. 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?" The replies are tongue-in-check, as you’ll hear. After that, the band plays a wild interlude, and the duo sings some more. 

It should be clear by now that all of the popular stories about the origin of the word are wrong — and I do mean all! Word origins seems to be one of those fields where everybody thinks he or she is an expert. One reason there are so many false theories about the origin of “jazz” is that fans, not trained in etymology, have gone looking for any words that sound like “jazz.” They found slightly similar sounds in French, some African languages, even Gaelic.

But this is simply not how this type of research is done. Countless words in different languages sound alike but have absolutely no relationship to each other. A trained etymologist is familiar with many languages, and with the histories of languages (so as to know whether one language influenced the other). And he or she knows how words develop and are formed. (For example, it is absolutely false that “golf” comes from an acronym of “Gentleman only, ladies forbidden”—not only because there are potential sources for the word in Scottish and Dutch languages, but because experts know that words were not formed from acronyms until after 1900.)

One of the most ridiculous stories about the origin of the word, advanced in Ken Burns’ Jazz, holds 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 this makes no sense.) There’s also no truth to the idea that “jazz” came from “Jasbo,” “jaser,” ”Jasper” or “Jezebel” — all are based on nothing but hearsay. Further, because the word did not originate among African Americans, a connection with African languages does not exist. It did not originate in New Orleans, so there is no connection with French. I know from experience that many of my readers will have their own favorite theories. Please, let go of them!

Furthermore, as noted by the late jazz historian Lawrence Gushee, almost all of the original New Orleans jazz musicians said that “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.”

They said they first heard the word “jazz” up north (usually meaning Chicago). In fact, the first known printed use of the word to refer to music in New Orleans comes from 1916, after it was already in use in Chicago and elsewhere. (New Orleans musicians born between, say, 1885 and 1901 were documented in hundreds of interviews, notably the series conducted for the Hogan Archive at Tulane University starting in 1958.)  

Duke Ellington, seated, and Max Roach, left.
Credit Getty Images

Significantly, this means that Duke Ellington (b. 1899) and Max Roach (b. 1924) were both right when they said the music was named by white people, not by the black musicians who created it. Even Sidney Bechet (b. 1897) wrote in his autobiography, Treat it Gentle: “Jazz, that’s a name the white people have given to the music.” Why have we been ignoring these revered artists? They were absolutely right.

It is probably also worth noting that the general public applied the word “jazz” in the 1920s to basically any type of dance music, including quite a bit of dance music that we would not consider jazz today. This means for example, that when F. Scott Fitzgerald published his Tales of the Jazz Age in 1922, he did not mean that the average white American was hip to the latest recordings by black artists (of which there were yet very few, in any case)! His title simply meant that the latest dance music had become a symbol for that generation, just as rock music was for young people in the 1960s.

But you can also see how Max Roach was wrong when he said they applied the term “jazz” as an insult. This was advertising! “Come see this lively, exciting, JAZZ music!” It would have made no sense if the word were perceived as negative. Did the word have a sexual connotation in some circles, as he claimed? Absolutely: any word for energy eventually has sexual connotations, it seems. But that connotation came later, and in any case it probably wasn’t the thinking of the white folks who named the music. On the other hand, did the word stand in the way of many “respectable” people, white and also religious black Americans, from accepting this new kind of music? Definitely so.

It certainly seems to be true, as Duke and Max and Bechet and so many black artists have felt, that the word has held the music back. It's understandable that many black artists like my late friend Dr. Billy Taylor campaigned to have the music called America’s Classical Music, or other similar terms.

When I first started teaching in colleges in 1977, it was clear that the name itself was disrespected by many European Americans — mostly older folks, but younger ones too. However, my experience with young people since the early 1990s is that not only do they not disrespect the word “jazz,” they have never even heard of people disrespecting it, and they are astounded to learn that used to be the case. Calling for a change in the name of our music seems to be a recurring event, but obviously it could only happen if everyone on the planet agreed to it, which is an impossibility. In any case, as I said, the need is long past.

Trumpeter (and keyboardist) Nicholas Payton has been writing since 2011 about the problems with the word “jazz.” But his point is broader than trying to find a new name for the music. He’s arguing, in part, that the word evokes a type of music still rooted in 1959.

Probably this is a reference to the idea of jazz that has been very successfully promoted by Wynton Marsalis and the institution he cofounded, Jazz at Lincoln Center. Marsalis has undeniably helped raise jazz to its current level of respectability — but at the same time, many feel that this has been accomplished by being overly entrenched in the classics of past jazz. So Payton’s point, as I understand it, is that his own music and the music of many of his peers is not adequately labeled by the word “jazz.” His suggestion of Black American Music (BAM) has not caught on — I suspect largely because there are so many kinds of Black American Music (jazz, blues, rap, hip-hop, gospel, etc., etc.) that it’s way too broad as a category.

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah in New Orleans, 2017
Credit Jazz Night in America / NPR

Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, another excellent New Orleans trumpeter and a very smart guy, has also spoken about how he began to find the term jazz “limiting.” He created his own new term, “stretch music,” for a sound free of artificial and arbitrary boundaries. This might be related in a way to Payton’s line of argument. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, jazz record sales and audience attendance dropped precipitously. As a result, many jazz musicians creating what was then called “fusion” complained that by marketing their music as “jazz,” the recording companies were automatically cutting off many potential fans and buyers.

The concerns of Payton and Scott, then, are coming from a different direction — not where does the word come from, but what does the word “jazz” truly mean to today’s music audiences? And that ties in with some questions about the current and possible future states of jazz, which we’ll save for another time.

For Further Reading:

Gerald Leonard Cohen, Origin of the Term 'Jazz,' self-published, 2015 (193 pages).

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

Wikipedia on Jazz the word

Tim Gracyk on early jazz in Tin Pan Alley

For more about Arthur Collins, click here.

After 31 years at the Rutgers campus in Newark, Dr. Lewis Porter now teaches at The New School jazz program. An accomplished pianist, his latest album is Beauty & Mystery (Altrisuoni), with Terri Lyne Carrington, John Patitucci and Tia Fuller.

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