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Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From--America’s Classical Music?

Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From--America’s Classical Music?

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 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 Mi ss 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.”


“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!”)  

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. 

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.”

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.


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.

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.

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.



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. 


taken from an article by Lewis Porter 2018

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