Jazz (word)

"That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland", 1916 sheet music cover. Alternative spellings such as "jass", "jas" and even "jasz" were seen until 1918.

The origin of the word jazz is one of the most sought-after word origins in modern American English. The word's intrinsic interest – the American Dialect Society named it the Word of the Twentieth Century – has resulted in considerable research and its history is well documented. As discussed in more detail below, jazz began as a West Coast slang term around 1912, the meaning of which varied but it did not initially refer to music. Jazz came to mean jazz music in Chicago around 1915.


Likely derivation from jasm

As with many words that began in slang, there is no definitive etymology for jazz. However, the similarity in meaning of the earliest jazz citations to jasm, a now-obsolete slang term meaning spirit, energy, vigor and dated to 1860 in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang, suggests that jasm should be considered the leading candidate for the source of jazz. A link between the two words is particularly supported by the Daily Californian's February 18, 1916, article, which used the spelling jaz-m, although the context and other articles in the same newspaper from this period show that jazz was intended.

Scholars think Jasm derives from or is a variant of slang jism or gism, which the Historical Dictionary of American Slang dates to 1842 and defines as "spirit; energy; spunk." Jism also means semen or sperm, the meaning that predominates today, making jism a taboo word. Deepening the nexus among these words is the fact that "spunk" is also a slang term for semen, and that "spunk"—like jism/jasm—also means spirit, energy, or courage (for example: "She showed a lot of spunk.") In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, jism was still used in polite contexts. Jism, or its variant jizz (which, however, is not attested in the Historical Dictionary of American Slang until 1941), has also been suggested as a direct source for jazz. A direct derivation from jism is phonologically unlikely. Jasm itself would be, according to this assumption, the intermediary form. (Compare the analogous relationship between the slang terms spasm "a sudden burst of energy", as in spasm band,[1] and spaz(z).)

Other possible derivations

Other proposed origins include French jaser, meaning to chatter or chat, and French chasser, meaning to chase or hunt. Daniel Cassidy, a film-maker, musician, and writer, has argued for a derivation from Irish teas, which is pronounced (according to Cassidy) "jass" and means "heat" or "passion". However, Cassidy's level of scholarship was consistently poor and the word teas would be pronounced tyass or chass, not jass. Although they cannot be ruled out absolutely, such derivations lack empirical supporting evidence and must be considered speculative at best, and highly improbable in the case of Cassidy's work.[2]

Scoop Gleeson, who first popularized the word, wrote in an article in the Call-Bulletin on September 3, 1938, that he learned the word from sports editor William "Spike" Slattery when the two were at Boyes Springs. Gleeson said that Slattery had picked up the expression in a craps game. "Whenever one of the players rolled the dice he would shout 'Come on, the old jazz.'" Assuming the accuracy of this noncontemporaneous recollection, the craps use of jazz appears to be a nonce-use and does not provide much information about the word's origin.


Earliest use: 1912

The earliest known references to jazz are in the sports pages of various West Coast newspapers covering the Pacific Coast League, a baseball minor league. The earliest example, found by New York University librarian George A. Thompson, Jr. in 2003, is from the Los Angeles Times on April 2, 1912, referring to Portland Beavers pitcher Ben Henderson:


"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."

As prize fighters who invent new punches are always the first to get their's [sic] Ben will probably be lucky if some guy don't [sic] 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.

Henderson's jazz ball apparently was not a success, as there are no known further references to it except for a brief mention in the Times the following day. While the lack of further attestations shows that Henderson is unlikely to have played a significant role in the popularization of jazz, his early use proves that the word was in existence by 1912.


A more lasting influence emerged in 1913, in a series of articles by E.T. "Scoop" Gleeson in the San Francisco Bulletin, found by researchers Peter Tamony (who carried out the pioneering research in this area) and Dick Holbrook, that likely were instrumental in bringing jazz to a broader public. These initial articles were written in Boyes Springs, California, where the San Francisco Seals baseball team was in training. In the earliest reference, on March 3, 1913, jazz was used in a negative sense, to indicate that disparaging information about ball player George Clifford McCarl had turned out to be inaccurate: "McCarl has been heralded all along the line as a 'busher,' but now it develops that this dope is very much to the 'jazz'."

Three days later, on March 6, Gleeson used jazz extensively in a longer article, in which he explained the term's meaning, which had now turned from negative to positive connotations:

Everybody has come back to the old town full of the old "jazz" and they promise to knock the fans off their feet with their playing.

What is the "jazz"? Why, it's a little of that "old life," the "gin-i-ker," the "pep," otherwise known as the enthusiasalum. A grain of "jazz" and you feel like going out and eating your way through Twin Peaks. It's that spirit which makes ordinary ball players step around like Lajoies and Cobbs.

The article uses jazz several more times and says that the San Francisco Seals' "members have trained on ragtime and 'jazz' and manager Del Howard says there's no stopping them." The context of the article as a whole shows that a musical meaning of jazz is not intended; rather, ragtime and "jazz" were both used as markers of ebullient spirit.

Gleeson used jazz in a number of articles in March and April 1913, and other journalists began to use the term as well. The Bulletin on April 5, 1913, published an article by Ernest J. Hopkins entitled "In Praise of 'Jazz,' a Futurist Word Which Has Just Joined the Language." The article, which used the spellings jaz and jazz interchangeably, discussed the term at length and included a highly positive definition:

"JAZZ" (WE CHANGE the spelling each time so as not to offend either faction) can be defined, but it cannot be synonymized. If there were another word that exactly expressed the meaning of "jaz," "jazz" would never have been born. A new word, like a new muscle, only comes into being when it has long been needed.

This remarkable and satisfactory-sounding word, however, means something like life, vigor, energy, effervescence of spirit, joy, pep, magnetism, verve, virility ebulliency, courage, happiness – oh, what's the use? – JAZZ.

Jazz, in the sense of pep and enthusiasm, continued in use in California for several years before being submerged by the jazz music meaning. Amateur etymologist Barry Popik has located a number of examples from the Berkeley Daily Californian and the Daily Palo Alto, showing that jazz in this sense was collegiate slang at the University of California, Berkeley in the period 1915 to 1917 and at Stanford University in the period 1916 to 1918. President Benjamin Ide Wheeler at Berkeley apparently used jazz with such frequency that many supposed he originated the term, although the Daily Californian stated on February 18, 1916, that he denied this.

Application to music

People began to apply jazz to music in Chicago, around 1915. The earliest known attestation, found by Yale Book of Quotations editor Fred R. Shapiro, is from the Chicago Daily Tribune on July 11, 1915:

Blues Is Jazz and Jazz Is Blues . . . The Worm had turned – turned to fox trotting. And the "blues" had done it. The "jazz" had put pep into the legs that had scrambled too long for the 5:15. . . . At the next place a young woman was keeping "Der Wacht Am Rhein" and "Tipperary Mary" apart when the interrogator entered. "What are the blues?" he asked gently. "Jazz!" The young woman's voice rose high to drown the piano. . . . The blues are never written into music, but are interpolated by the piano player or other players. They aren't new. They are just reborn into popularity. They started in the south half a century ago and are the interpolations of darkies originally. The trade name for them is "jazz." . . . Thereupon "Jazz" Marion sat down and showed the bluest streak of blues ever heard beneath the blue. Or, if you like this better: "Blue" Marion sat down and jazzed the jazziest streak of jazz ever. Saxophone players since the advent of the "jazz blues" have taken to wearing "jazz collars," neat decollate things that give the throat and windpipe full play, so that the notes that issue from the tubes may not suffer for want of blues – those wonderful blues.

Examples in Chicago sources continued over the next year, with the term beginning to extend to other cities by the end of 1916. By 1917 the term was in widespread use. The first known use in New Orleans, discovered by lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer in 2009, appeared in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Nov. 14, 1916:[3]

Theatrical journals have taken cognizance of the "jas bands" and at first these organizations of syncopation were credited with having originated in Chicago, but any one ever having frequented the "tango belt" of New Orleans knows that the real home of the "jas bands" is right here. However, it remains for the artisans of the stage to give formal recognition to the "jas bands" of New Orleans. The day of the "Stage Workers" annual masquerade ball, which is November 23, the stage employes of the city are going to traverse the city led by a genuine and typical "jas band." Just where and when these bands, until this winter known only to New Orleans, originated, is a disputed question. It is claimed they are the outgrowth of the so-called "fish bands" of the lake front camps, Saturday and Sunday night affairs.
However, the fact remains that their popularity has already reached Chicago, and that New York probably will be invaded next. But, be that as it may, the fact remains the only and original are to be found here and here alone. The "boys behind the scenes" have named their parade the "Jas parade." It's going to be an automobile affair with the actors and actresses of the various theaters right behind the band. The ball is to be at the Washington Artillery.

It is not clear who first applied jazz to music. A leading contender is Bert Kelly, a musician and bandleader who was familiar with the California slang term from being a banjoist with Art Hickman's orchestra. Kelly formed Bert Kelly's Jazz Band and claimed in a letter published in Variety on October 2, 1957, that he had begun using "the Far West slangword 'jazz,' as a name for an original dance band" in 1914. Kelly's claim is considered plausible but lacks contemporary verification, although the Literary Digest wrote on April 26, 1919, that "[t]he phrase 'jazz band' was first used by Bert Kelly in Chicago in the fall of 1915, and was unknown in New Orleans."

Other important early claimants include the band of Tom Brown, a trombonist who fronted an early New Orleans band in Chicago in 1915 and claimed his group was the first billed as a "jass" band. Slightly later was the Original Dixieland Jass Band (O.D.J.B.) or, in some accounts, a predecessor band named Stein's Dixie Jass Band), allegedly so named by Chicago cafe manager Harry James. According to a November 1937 article in Song Lyrics, "A dance-crazed couple shouted at the end of a dance, 'Jass it up boy, give us some more jass.' Promoter Harry James immediately grasped this word as the perfect monicker for popularizing the new craze."

There is insufficient contemporary evidence to determine definitively the relative merits of these two claims. However, if the chronology of the Original Dixieland Jass Band is correct, it did not receive the jass name until March 3, 1916, which would be too late for it to be the originator. In a 1917 court case concerning tune copyrights, various members of what became the O.D.J.B. testified under oath that the band opened in Chicago under the name "Stein's Dixie Jass Band". DuBose Heyward, author of Porgy, in his book Jasbo Brown and Selected Poems (1924), states that the Jazz music genre had possibly taken its name from Jazbo Brown, an "itinerant negro player along the Mississippi and later in Chicago cabarets".

Association with sex

The association of jazz with sex is early and extensive. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang (1997) cites explicit sexual meanings from 1918 and says that this was probably the original sense. However, it now seems difficult to reconcile a prior, widely recognized sexual meaning of jazz with the known word history described above. Professor Gerald Cohen of Missouri University of Science and Technology, who has done a great deal of work on the word's history, in 2001 offered a $100 reward for any provable musical or sexual use of jazz from before 1913, an offer that still stands.

Vet Boswell of the Boswell Sisters said she remembered when "jazz" was not a word fit to utter in polite company. Ray Lopez of Tom Brown's 1915 band recalled that he and his fellow musicians assumed that the word "jass" or "jazz" was too improper to be printed in newspapers so they looked in a dictionary for similar words like "jade"; rediscovered newspaper advertisements from the era for Brown's "Jad Band" or "Jab Band" are suggestive of confirmation of this account.

Jazz is said to be a variation of the word "jism", because it was originally performed by horn players to entertain johns in the whorehouses of Storyville, the notorious red-light district of New Orleans. It was what was playing downstairs when one lost that last shred of innocence. Trombonist Clay Smith was rumored to have said, "If the truth were known about the origin of the word 'jazz,' it would never be mentioned in polite company."

False leads

Jazz has been subjected to a large number of instances of misleading and false information, coming in some instances from the most respected sources.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in Volume II of its Supplement (published in 1976) and hence in the 1989 Second Edition – still the most current printed edition of the OED – provided a 1909 citation for the use of jazz on a gramophone record of "Uncle Josh in Society." Researcher David Shulman demonstrated in 1989 that this attestation was an error based on a later version of the recording; the 1909 recording does not use the word jazz. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have acknowledged that this is an error, and the revised entry of jazz in OED Online redates this quotation, adding a note pointing out the mistake. However, many secondary sources continue to show 1909 as the earliest known example of the word, based on the OED's original entry.

The Grand Larousse Dictionnaire de la Langue Française and the earlier Über englisches Sprachgut im Französischen cite a 1908 use of jazband, a jazz orchestra, in the Paris newspaper Le Matin. This is a typographical error for 1918.

Press agent Walter Kingsley wrote in an August 5, 1917, article in the New York Sun that jaz is African in origin. He wrote that "In his studies of the creole patois and idiom in New Orleans Lafcadio Hearn reported that the word "jaz," meaning to speed things up, to make excitement, was common among the blacks of the South, and had been adopted by the Creoles as a term to be applied to music of a rudimentary syncopated type." However, recent searches of the works of Lafcadio Hearn failed to find any mention of the word. Lawrence Gushee argues that Kingsley's quote from Hearn is most likely fraudulent.[4] Kingsley also claimed that the phrase "Jaz her up" was used on occasion by plantation slaves, and that in common usage in Vaudeville "jaz her up" or "put in jaz" meant to accelerate or add low comedy, while "Jazbo" meant "hokum".[5] The Historical Dictionary of American Slang says that Kingsley's article was "purely an invention," an opinion consistent with the views of other scholars.

Lord Palmerston wrote in an 1831 letter, in reference to Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, of "old Talley jazzing and telling stories to Lieven and Esterhazy and Wessenberg." Scholars believe that Palmerston was not using jazz in any modern sense, but was simply anglicizing French jaser in its standard meaning of chattering or chatting. No prior or subsequent examples of Palmerston's unique loan-word exist, effectively ruling it out as a plausible point of origin for the introduction of a very different jazz many decades later.

Several sources, including Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns in Jazz: A History of America's Music (2000) and Hilton Als in the New York Review of Books on March 27, 2003, suggest that jazz derives from the jasmine perfume that prostitutes wore in the red-light district of New Orleans. This theory derives from the recollections of jazz musician Garvin Bushell (as told to Mark Tucker) in Jazz from the Beginning (1998; originally published ca. 1988). Bushell said that he heard this derivation in the circus, where he began working in 1916. It appears to be a false etymology, unsupported by evidence.

Ward and Burns also suggest that jazz derives from jezebel, which they assert was a common nineteenth-century term for a prostitute. There is no evidence that the name Jezebel, a familiar biblical allusion, was first shortened and then altered in meaning to become a synonym for "spirit or energy." This theory is unsourced and appears to be a false etymology.

Bandleader Art Hickman, who was also at Boyes Springs, said in interviews published in the San Francisco Examiner on October 12, 1919, and in the San Francisco Chronicle on November 9, 1919, that jazz derived from the effervescent springs at Boyes Springs. The discovery in 2003 that jazz was already in use in 1912 makes an onomatopoeic origin in 1913 implausible.


  1. Herbert Asbury names the "The Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band", who appeared about 1895, as the first jazz band; he relates that a band of professional musicians who imitated their style and originally appeared, about 1900, under the same name, was, after the original Spasm Band turned up, billed as "Razzy Dazzy Jazzy Band", cf. Gold, David L. (2009). Rodríguez González, Félix; Lillo Buades, Antonio, eds. Studies in Etymology and Etiology: With Emphasis on Germanic, Jewish, Romance and Slavic Languages. Alicante, Spain: Universidad de Alicante. p. 155. ISBN 9788479085179.
  2. Debunker (14 April 2013). "Crony". cassidyslangscam: A debunking of Daniel Cassidy's theories about Irish and slang. Retrieved 2014-06-03.
  3. Benjamin Zimmer (2009-06-08). ""Jazz": A Tale of Three Cities". Word Routes. The Visual Thesaurus. Retrieved 2009-06-08.
  4. Lawrence Gushee, "The Nineteenth-Century Origins of Jazz," Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 14, No. 1, Selected Papers from the 1993 National Conference on Black Music Research. (Spring, 1994), pp. 1–24.
  5. O'Meally, Robert G. (1998). The jazz cadence of American culture. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0-231-10449-9.


External links

Look up jazz in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
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