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Q From Brett Culton: Could you please tell me the origin of the word jazz?

A It’s a deceptively simple question. A mish-mash of colliding egos, conflicting claims and confused memories has led researchers down many false trails while searching for the origins of this American art form, not least where its name came from.

To pluck some examples from the many in the books: people have pointed to Jasper, the name of a dancing slave on a plantation near New Orleans in about 1825 whose nickname was Jazz; to a Mississippi drummer named Chas Washington in the late nineteenth century or to Chas, the nickname of Charles Alexander (of Alexander’s Ragtime Band) about 1910; to a Chicago musician named Jasbo Brown; to a band conductor in New Orleans about 1904 called Mr Razz; to the French chassé, a gliding dancing step that had already been turned into the archetypically American verb sashay as long ago as the 1830s; to the French jaser, useless talk for the pleasure of hearing one’s own voice; or the Arabic jazib, one who allures.

The intimate association of jazz with American black culture has led others to look for an origin in African languages, such as the Mandingo jasi, become unlike oneself, Tshiluba jaja, cause to dance, or Temne yas, be extremely lively or energetic.

One early jazz player, Garvin Bushell, was sure it had a fragrant origin. In his 1988 book Jazz From the Beginning, he remembers his early days in music, around 1916: “The perfume industry was very big in New Orleans in those days, since the French had brought it over with them. They used jasmine — oil of jasmine — in all different odors to pep it up. It gave more force to the scent. So they would say, ‘let’s jass it up a bit,’ when something was a little dead.” John Philip Sousa suggested in the 1920s that jazz slid into our vocabulary by way of the vaudeville stage, in which all the acts would come back on to the stage at the end of a performance to give a rousing, boisterous finale called a jazzbo, a type of low physical comedy. (This one looks plausible; however, jazzbo isn’t recorded before 1917 and might be from jazz plus bo, an abbreviation of boy.)

If you weren’t confused before, I suspect you are now. There are more folk etymologies around this word than almost any other, many of them vehemently held in defiance of the evidence.

What we do know, as the result of research by Gerald Cohen, is that the word suddenly starts to appear in the San Francisco Bulletin in March 1913 in a series of articles about baseball by E T “Scoop” Gleeson (it’s recently been found that an isolated example appeared about a year earlier in the Los Angeles Times, but this is also in a baseball context). Early examples had nothing to do with music but referred to an intangible quality possessed by baseball players, what another writer in the newspaper, Ernest Hopkins, described in April that year as “life, vigor, energy, effervescence of spirit, joy, pep, magnetism, verve, virility, ebulliency, courage, happiness — oh, what’s the use? — JAZZ. Nothing else can express it”.

Gleeson later said that he had got it from another newsman, Spike Slattery, while they were at the training camp of the local baseball team, the San Francisco Seals. Slattery said he had heard it in a crap game. Art Hickman, an unemployed local musician, was at the camp to make contacts among the newsmen but took on the job of organising evening entertainments. Among these was a ragtime band he created from other out-of-work musicians, including a couple of banjo players. It was this band that developed a new sound that started to be described in the training camp as jazz. This name went with Hickman to engagements in San Francisco and later to New York, though his type of syncopated rag, later to be called sweet jazz, turned out to be a dead end musically.

By the following year, it seems that the word had spread to Chicago, most probably through the efforts of another bandleader, Bert Kelly. In 1916 it appeared there in a different spelling in the name of the New Orleans Jass Band. Despite this band’s name, the word wasn’t known in New Orleans until 1917, as early jazz musicians attested. It is said to have arrived through the medium of a letter from Freddie Keppard in Chicago to the cornet player Joe Oliver. Oliver showed the letter to his protégé Louis Armstrong and the name soon became applied to the New Orleans style that became dominant and which was later called hot jazz to distinguish it from the Art Hickman sort.

The big question remains: where did those San Francisco crapshooters of 1913 get their word from? This is the point where we step off the path and run the risk of disappearing into an etymological quicksand. Scoop Gleason said that when they rolled the dice players would call out “Come on, the old jazz”. It looks as though they were using the word as an incantation, a call to Lady Luck to smile on them.

It’s commonly said that the word had strong sexual associations, being a low slang term among blacks for copulation. This may be so, though it’s odd that the worldly-wise journalists on the San Francisco Bulletin didn’t realise it at the time. If they had, they would surely have stopped using it, at least in their newspaper columns. The first direct sexual associations date only from 1918, at a point by which the word’s musical sense had become firmly established. We have no knowledge of the racial background of those crap shooters in San Francisco, so there’s even doubt whether the word has any associations with black English at all.

The most plausible sexual origin is in the word jism, also known as jasm. This has a long history in American English, being known in print from 1842 and probably a lot earlier still in the spoken language. It could have the same sense of spirit, energy or strength later associated with jazz, but the primary idea seems to have been semen or sperm, a meaning jism still has, one that has obvious associations with vitality and virility. It may be relevant that one of the earlier examples, in the Daily Californian in February 1916, writes the word as jaz-m.

It doesn’t seem too implausible to suggest that jasm lost its final letter, turned into jass and then into jazz. It’s likely that Gleeson and his fellow newspapermen didn’t connect their new word jazz with jism, not knowing about the intermediate steps.

Of course, that just takes the whole matter back another step in this never-ending dance of word history. The English Dialect Dictionary records the eighteenth-century form chissom, to bud, sprout or germinate, which looks possible. Others have pointed to an origin, via black slaves, from words like Ki-Kongo dinza, the life force, or from other African languages. So at least some of those folk etymologies may be nearer the truth than one might have thought.

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Page created 10 Jul 2004