Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From? Follow a Trail of Clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter (2024)

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 “sem*n.”

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.

Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From? Follow a Trail of Clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter (1)

“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 in1912, 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.

Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From? Follow a Trail of Clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter (2)

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 Archiveat Tulane University starting in 1958.)

Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From? Follow a Trail of Clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter (3)

Credit Getty Images


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 Agein 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.

Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From? Follow a Trail of Clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter (4)

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 onJazz the word

Tim Gracyk onearly 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 Patitucciand Tia Fuller.

Where Did 'Jazz,' the Word, Come From? Follow a Trail of Clues, in Deep Dive with Lewis Porter (2024)


Where did the word jazz come from? ›

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.

Where did jazz come from and where was it popular? ›

Jazz is a music genre that originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, Louisiana, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with its roots in blues and ragtime. Since the 1920s Jazz Age, it has been recognized as a major form of musical expression in traditional and popular music.

Where did the word jasm come from? ›

"Jasm" derives from or is a variant of the slang term "jism" or "gism", which the Historical Dictionary of American Slang dates to 1842 and defines as "spirit; energy; spunk." "Jism" also means sem*n or sperm, the meaning that predominates today, making "jism" a taboo word.

What was jazz originally called? ›

'” The connection of the futurist word with music seems to have been made at Boyes Springs in 1913. Bands had been playing jazz for years, but it usually went by other names: ragtime, the blues, or Dixieland. At the spa in Boyes Springs, a band led by Art Hickman played “rag dances” in syncopated style.

Where Did jazz Come From quizlet? ›

Jazz originated in New orleans and is a fusion of African and European music styles. From European Music: Harmony and instruments (saxophone, trumpet, piano, etc.)

What does name jazz mean? ›

What is the meaning of the name Jazz? The name Jazz is primarily a gender-neutral name of American origin that means Style Of Music.

What made jazz popular? ›

The beginning of the jazz music era in America started in the early 1920s after World War I. Americans sought joy from the dark times of the war. Jazz music quickly became popular because of its upbeat tempo and its ability to bring crowds from toe-tapping to learning a new style of dance called the Charleston.

Where and when was jazz first invented by who? ›

Jazz originated in New Orleans in the second half of the 19th century. A port city, New Orleans had people coming in from around the world, socializing, and sharing their music. Music from all over the world could be heard in the streets of New Orleans.

When was jazz invented and where? ›

It all started around 1819 in Congo Square, an outdoor space in New Orleans where slaves would congregate on Sundays when they didn't have to work. According to the Ken Burns documentary , they would sing, play music and dance, swaying back and forth to the songs of their home countries.

When was the first use of the word jazz? ›

"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 ...

What does jazz in slang mean? ›

slang. insincere, exaggerated, or pretentious talk. Don't give me any of that jazz about your great job!

Where does the slang word come from? ›

This secret cryptic language – now fallen into disuse – was created in 1600 England by thieves, tramps, criminals and vagabonds as a way of excluding or confusing a particular group of people, namely the authorities. For decades, the word “slang” referred to the vocabulary of “low” or “disreputable” people.

What was the first appearance of the word jazz most likely intended to mean? ›

The use of jazz as a musical term probably appeared in Chicago around 1915 and described the musical energy of the bands from New Orleans. The musical term jazz was intended as a compliment (full of energy and life), and the term to “ jazz it up" is still used today.

Who created jazz? ›

Nick La Rocca, the Original Dixieland Jass Band's cornet player and composer, claimed that he personally invented jazz – though the cornetist Buddy Bolden had a much better claim, or even the Creole artist Morton, who certainly was the first to write jazz out as sheet music and always said he'd invented it.

What are the origins of jazz in the United States? ›

Jazz music, unlike a lot of other genres, was born in America in New Orleans, Louisiana in the early 20th century. The base of jazz was founded from “blues music” which was based off of African American slaves' hymns and field hollers which they sang in the fields as they picked cotton.

Where did jazz originate in us? ›

Each ethnic group in New Orleans contributed to the very active musical environment in the city, and in this way to the development of early jazz. A well-known example of early ethnic influences significant to the origins of jazz is the African dance and drumming tradition, which was documented in New Orleans.

Where did jazz come from in the 1920s? ›

Started in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, jazz has its musical roots in New Orleans, Louisiana where it combines American and European classical music with African and slave folk songs with a touch of West African culture.

What Is jazz a metaphor for? ›

Famed trumpeter Wynton Marsalis sees jazz music as the perfect metaphor for democracy. "The question that confronts us right now as a nation is, 'Do we want to find a better way? '" Marsalis says.

Is there another word for jazz? ›

What is another word for jazz?
fusion jazzhot jazz
improvisational music
1 more row

What was the first jazz song? ›

The Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) was a Dixieland jazz band that made the first jazz recordings in early 1917. Their "Livery Stable Blues" became the first jazz record ever issued.

What music influenced jazz? ›

Jazz is a distinctively American style of music that developed in the early decades of the 20th century. Its roots include many Afro-American folk music traditions, such as spirituals, work songs, and blues. It also borrowed from 19th century band music and the ragtime style of piano playing.

Who was the first jazz musician? ›

Historians generally point to Buddy Bolden, a cornet player, as the first jazz musician.

Who created jazz music and why? ›

Jazz grew from the African American slaves who were prevented from maintaining their native musical traditions and felt the need to substitute some homegrown form of musical expression.

When and how was jazz created? ›

Early 1900s: Music historians trace jazz music to early twentieth century New Orleans, where musicians like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong borrowed heavily from ragtime, blues, and second-line horn sections from parades. Even New Orleans funeral music inspired early jazz musicians.

Who is the father of jazz? ›

Louis Armstrong was born in a poor section of New Orleans known as “the Battlefield” on August 4, 1901. By the time of his death in 1971, the man known around the world as Satchmo was widely recognized as a founding father of jazz—a uniquely American art form.

What makes jazz? ›

The key elements of Jazz include: blues, syncopation, swing and creative freedom. Improvisation in music is not new, as there are traditions of improvisation in India, Africa, and Asia. Beethoven, Mozart and Bach all improvised, as well, but Jazz improvisation is special due to the use of the blues scale.

Why is jazz so important to American history? ›

Jazz is recognized around the world for its rich cultural heritage rooted in the African-American experience. Since its inception in the early 20th century, jazz has contributed to and been a reflection of American culture and is widely considered to be the only truly original American art form.

Was jazz originally spelled jass? ›

(In late 1917, they swapped “jass” for “jazz,” the now standard spelling of a word originally used to describe baseball players with pep.) The musicians soon moved to New York City, where a nod from Al Jolson helped land a gig at the theater crowd's favorite post-show hangout: Reisenweber's Café on Columbus Circle.

Why did they change the spelling of jass to jazz? ›

The trumpeter for the Original Dixieland Jass band, Nick LaRocca talks about how the term was changed from Jass to Jazz saying: "...the term was changed because children and some adults could not resist the temptation to scratch the letter "J" from the posters."

Why were the 1920s called jazz? ›

The Roaring Twenties were years of rapid economic growth, rising prosperity for many people, and far-reaching social changes for the nation. The period is sometimes called the Jazz Age, because of the new style of music and the pleasure-seeking people who made it popular.

Is jazz a curse word? ›

'Jazz' is not a bad word now, but almost certainly the etymology is of extremely low origin, referring to copulation before it was applied to music, dancing, and nonsense (i.e., all that Jazz). The vulgar word was in general currency in dance halls thirty years or more ago" (Clay Smith, Etude 9/24).

How was jazz first Spelt? ›

Musician Eubie Blake said, in an interview with National Public Radio before his death in 1983: “When Broadway picked it up, they called it 'J-A-Z-Z. ' It wasn't called that. It was spelled 'J-A-S-S.

What was the Jazz Age known for? ›

The era saw the rise of ready-made clothing in standard sizes, the automobile, commercial radio, electric appliances, and the telephone, as well as the spread of music through home phonograph records.

Who coined the term the Jazz Age and why did he call it this? ›

F. Scott Fitzgerald is credited with coining the phrase “The Jazz Age” in the title of his 1922 collection of short stories, Tales of the Jazz Age.

What are 3 facts about the Jazz Age? ›

In 1925 the Jazz Age was in full swing. It was the year Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington made their first recordings. The Phantom of the Opera opened at movie theaters. The Ku Klux Klan marched on Washington, D.C. People sat on flagpoles, danced the Charleston, read a new novel called The Great Gatsby.

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