The Word "Jazz"
Excerpted from Jazz Anecdotes by Bill Crow, Oxford University Press, 1990
Many attempts have been made to pin down the origin of the word, "jazz," none completely successful. Some scholars have detected roots in Africa and Arabia, and others hold, with perhaps a little more evidence, that it stems from the French verb jaser, meaning "to chatter." There are speculations that the word arose from corruptions of the abbreviations of the first names of early musicians: "Charles" (Chas.) or "James" (Jas.). Another source claims that a Chicago musician called Jasbo Brown was the genesis of the term.
Some historians find origins in slang terms for semen (gism, jasm). It is true that "jazzing" was widely used as a word meaning fornication, but no one has been able to determine for sure that this usage preceded the musical reference. Some early jazz musicians have remembered hearing "jazz" used erotically in both New Orleans and San Francisco around the turn of the century.
One story offers perfume as a possible source of the word. When he was a young man working in a circus band in Louisiana, Garvin Bushell discussed the subject with some older musicians: They said that the French had brought the perfume industry with them to New Orleans, and the oil of jasmine was a popular ingredient locally. To add it to a perfume was called "jassing it up." The strong scent was popular in the red-light district, where a working girl might approach a prospective customer and say, "Is jazz on your mind tonight, young fellow?" The term had become synonymous with erotic activity and came to be applied to the music as well.
In 1916 Johnny Stein's band from New Orleans was playing a style of music that was new in Chicago. H. O. Brunn describes how "jazz" became the name of the music they played: It was during their run at Schiller's that the word "jazz" was first applied to music. A retired vaudeville entertainer, somewhat titillated by straight blended whiskey and inspired by the throbbing tempos of this lively band, stood at his table and shouted, "Jass it up, boys!"
"Jass," in the licentious slang vocabulary of the Chicago underworld, was an obscene word, but like many four-letter words of its genre it had been applied to anything and everything and had become so broad in its usage that the exact meaning had become obscure.
Harry James, the manager of Schiller's, never missed a bet. When the inebriate bellowed forth "Jass it up, boys!" the thinking machinery of the Chicago café expert was set in motion. The tipsy vaudevillian was hired to sit at his table and shout "Jass it up" every time he felt like it—all drinks on the house. The next day the band was billed, in blazing red letters across the front of Schiller's:
STEIN'S DIXIE JASS BAND
Chicagoans then had a word for the heretofore unnamed music.
After some personnel changes, the band was booked into Reisenweber's restaurant in New York.
Ragtime's lusty successor had finally completed its evolution from "jass" to "jasz" to jaz" and, in the New York Times of February 2, 1917, we find the first appearance of the word spelled "jazz." Reisenweber's ad on the amusement page of that issue vaunted "The First Eastern Appearance of the Famous Original Dixieland Jazz Band." Nick LaRocca avers that the word "jass" was changed because children, as well as a few impish adults, could not resist the temptation to obliterate the letter "j" from their posters.
Ralph Berton has another candidate for first use of the word. He gives the following account: In 1915 a vaudeville hoofer-&-comic named Joe Frisco, playing a date in New Orleans, heard a white spasm band, as it was called locally (homemade instruments & komic kapers), playing a kind of cheerful burlesque of the music they'd learned in black red-light districts, etc. Frisco got them a gig at Lamb's Café, in Chicago, billed as "Tom Brown's Band from Dixieland." Business was good; they were held over.
Respectable union musicians resented the invaders, and placed an ad denouncing them as players of "nothing but cheap, shameless JASS music." The shocking four-letter word had a predictable effect. The next week Lamb had to put in forty extra tables, and thoughtfully changed their billing to "Brown's JASS BAND from Dixieland." It was the first known public use of the phrase.
There may never be a clear determination of who used the word first. At any rate, it quickly became the universal term for music improvised to hot rhythm. Nathan W. Pearson, Jr., describes the dim view taken by certain moralists against the new music: Protests against jazz were plentiful. The town of Zion, Illinois, for example, banned jazz in January 1921, ranking it with tobacco and alcohol as a sin their citizens could do without. The term "jazz" itself was felt by many to have a sexual connotation. Worse, its rhythms and the "wild" dancing it elicited were feared to be leading young people to sexual abandon and degeneracy. Given the times, such fearful expressions probably heightened interest in the music and its social setting.
Whatever the origin of the word "jazz," it has resisted many attempts to change it. Duke Ellington never approved of the word, preferring more dignified terminology. He said: By and large, jazz always has been like the kind of man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with. The word "jazz" has been part of the problem. The word never lost its association with those New Orleans bordellos. In the 1920s I used to try to convince Fletcher Henderson that we ought to call what we were doing "Negro music." But it's too late for that now. This music has become so integrated you can't tell one part from the other so far as color is concerned.
Others expressed the hope that the music could rid itself of the "stigma" of the sexual connotation. Efforts during the 1930s and '40s by music magazines to invent a new word resulted in lame substitutes like "ragtonia," "syncopep," "crewcut," "Amerimusic," and "Jarb."
As we enter the 1990s, the sexual connotation of the word has almost completely faded away. "Jazz" is now used to identify a variety of musical forms, as well as a style of Broadway theater dancing, a patented exercise regimen, a toilet water, a basketball team, and a brand of computer software.