the prehistory of "jazz": a (long) speculation

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Thu Jan 8 20:43:15 UTC 2004

I have gathered all references to "jazz" from Gerry Cohen's latest compilation and from the OED and from HDAS, along with all references I have selected from the Proquest files of the LATimes, NYTimes, and Washington Post into one strictly chronological listing.  It runs 45 pages, through 1957, and is growing.

Between 1912 and 1918 the word "jazz" was used with four meanings:
   1) nonsense, foolishness
   2) vigor, enthusiasm, spirit
   3) music
   4) fornication

The two earliest known occurrences exhibit meaning #1, nonsense.  I interpret Ben Henderson's reference (April 2, 1912) to his new pitch as a "jazz curve" as deprecating, parallel to the name "nickel curve" for a screwball or Steve Hamilton's "folly floater" -- his new pitch is a weird pitch that wobbles so much it can't be hit.  The next reference (March 3, 1913) definitely means "nonsense": a player has been denigrated as a busher, but "this dope is very much to the jazz".  A passage from April 19, 1913 says that two inept prizefighters were "laying the jazz on too thick" and Barry's new find, posted Christmas Day, "are you jerry to the old jazz" (June 4, 1913) also seems to fit here.

A string of references meaning energy, vigor, &c come from stories in San Francisco newspapers from the spring training camp of the San Francisco Seals, at Boyes Springs, California, a resort developed around a spring of naturally effervescent water.  Gerry Cohen has assembled 9, between March 6, 1913 and June 12, 1913.  All state that the Seals are playing with a lot of jazz or with a great lack of jazz, depending.  6 of the 9 passages appeared under the byline of E. T. "Scoop" Gleeson.  Barry Popik has turned up several from the UCLA student newspaper, October 13, 1915, April 13 and October 26, 1816, and later, all with reference to student enthusiasm for the football team.

The earliest occurrence so far found with reference to music seems to be from the Chicago Herald, May 1, 1916, as cited by a book on the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), as cited by HDAS.  There are a number of other citations from late 1916, and an American artist named Charles Demuth painted a watercolor of "A Negro Jazz Band" in 1916.  This sense doesn't become common until 1917, when the ODJB got a gig in NYC and made their first records.  One of the few things about this topic that seems reasonably certain is that the proto-jazz musicians of the 1900s and early 1910s in New Orleans, Kansas City, &c. did not call their music "jazz" and that the word first came to be attached to music in late 1915, in Chicago.

The earliest references to the meaning "fornication" are from writings unpublished at the time, a diary kept by John Dos Passos, entry of November 11, 1918; then something cited by HDAS as the Noyes manuscript, 1918, no specific date; a couple of passages from the soldiers' song "Mademoiselle from Armentieres", dated 1918 and from a limited circulation book; and a reference from 1920, no date, from a diary.  In the mid 1920s, a writer named Clay Smith (September, 1924) asserted that the word had carried that sense "in the mining centers of the West" 35 years before; Paul Whiteman (1926) deplored that the music should be besmirched by such a low name; and Guy B. Johnson, a southern white sociologist, asserted (1927) that it was a common meaning among southern blacks.  There are a number of other statements made decades after the fact, by musicians and others, that this meaning was common in the very early 1900s.  Jon Lightner very reasonably supposes that these statements can
't all be wrong, and so in HDAS makes the sense of "fornication" the earliest sense.

My supposition is that the word can't have originated in the early 1910s and yet have within 5 years spread so widely geographically and diversified so widely in meaning.  The word is much older than has so far been shown.  But I suppose that the primary senses are #1 and #2, that it was a term used by baseball players, and that the "fornication" sense was a minor sense paralleled in other words that mean "energy" or "vigor", as for instance "spunk".

We now enter the realm of unfounded speculation:

The origin of the word "jazz" is the French words "jaser" and "jaseur", to chatter / a chatterer.  Some baseball players evince their enthusiasm for the game by keeping up a constant flow of chatter from their position or from the bench: "easy out, go get him, he can't hit, bear down" or "get a hit, move 'em along, save me my ups", as the case may be.  This is what I remember from the playing fields of Meriden, Conn. in the 1950s, but I dare say there were similar players in the 1850s.  (I posted a question to a 19th century baseball history site asking for instances of such chatter-guys.  The response was the names of a few notorious bench-jockeys, not the same thing.)  At some point a French-speaking ball-player said of some chatter-guy "He is a real jaseur, that one" and the word tickled his teammates, who took it up and by back-formation decided that a jazzer emits jazz.  It will be noted that this flow of chatter may demonstrate enthusiasm but is also pretty nonsensical
.  (I also posted the 19th c baseball group asking for the names of probable French-speaking ball-players and got several candidates, including Napoleon Lajoie, who is in the Hall of Fame, but as I recall, all were Quebecois.  I would prefer a Louisiana Cajun and don't know why I shouldn't have one, if I wish hard enough.)

We now skip forward probably a few decades, to 1913 and the training camp at Boyes Spring.  This was the first season the Seals trained there.  Someone who was familiar with the ball-players use of the word "jazz" held a glass of the spring water to his ear and instead of hearing it fizz, or hiss, he heard it "jazz", because it was full of life and energy and so forth.  A number of the 1913 references treat the "jazz" shown by the Seals ball-players or sadly needed by them as a physical substance like the Boyes Spring water and several refer to the need for the manager to open a fresh bottle or keg.  It seems that the proprietors of the spring really did bottle the water and distribute it locally.  The Chicago White Sox evidently were also training nearby, since the teams played each other, and it would be interesting to see whether there were Chicago reporters at the White Sox camp and whether they picked up the word "jazz" too.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Art Hickman, a musician, was also staying at the Springs and had organized a small band to play for evening dances.  He later went on to organize a band that played for dancing at a popular San Francisco hotel.  Ferdy Grofe and Bert Kelly were associated with this band.  History is written by the winners, and hot jazz has won over sweet jazz, so Hickman is forgotten.  It didn't help that although he had a successful gig in NYC with Florenz Zeigfeld and a couple of tours of England, all in the very early 1920s, he had left his heart in San Francisco and preferred to stay there.  His health also failed early and he died fairly young, in 1930.  A very recent history of jazz by Alyn Shipton gives a couple of pages to his career and credits him with devising a way of scoring for a saxophone section that was followed by the arrangers of the big-band era.  It appears that the word "jazz" became attached to his style of music, with reference to its live
liness.  His associate Bert Kelly took a band to Chicago in 1915 and carried the word "jazz" with him as the word for his style of music, where it was picked up by a precursor to the ODJB, and the rest is history.

Hickman repudiated the word "jazz" in an interview in 1920, saying that the word had nothing to do with music, but referred to effervescent water.  I suspect that this was after the fact, a position he took then because he wanted to dissociate his style of music from the music of the jazz fad of the day, which was hot music with a strong novelty streak.  One of the ODJB's first hits involved the instruments imitating barnyard animals.  The connection with "jazz" and the Hickman style of dance music seems pretty believable.  The "fornication" meaning seems to be pretty well established in the south, less so in the west.  Either it was not known at all in California or it was thought of as a very secondary meaning known in a few low circles sometimes frequented by sports writers but not by the better class of their readers, and so one that didn't taint the primary meanings of the word.  I would parallel this with the word "screw" -- its "fornication" sub-meaning would have bar
red a sports writer from saying that the Seals had "screwed up" a game, but wouldn't have led an editor to reject a hardware store's ad for a sale on screwdrivers.  I can't imagine a nightclub manager in 1916 putting out a sign that he knew would be understood by most passerbys as saying "Tonight!  Dance to the Music of the Original Dixieland Fornicating Band!"

Those who prefer to believe that the word first meant fornication can replace the baseball scenario above with one in which French-speaking streetwalkers in New Orleans used the pick-up line "veux-tu jaser avec moi?" (= "wanna chat?").  But I think that it would have been easier for a nice word to take on a naughty meaning than for a naughty word to become nice.

In a message of 8 Aug 2003, Dale Coye proposed that "jazzbo" derives from the name "Jasper", which city people supposed to be the sort of dumb name that dumb country people gave their babies.  I like this proposition, since it avoids the problem of accounting for "jazzbo" when trying to explain the development of the word "jazz".  It fits with the earliest appearances of the word, as "low comedy that amuses the ignorant" and so forth.  Once the music became well known, "jazzbo" was assimilated to "jazz", and used to mean "a person who likes or plays jazz" -- while the vaudeville & movie critic of the LATimes assimilated "jazz" to "jazzbo", calling pie-in-the-face comedy "jazz comedy".


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern Univ. Pr., 1998.

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