Jazz: a new etymology

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Oct 12 16:58:20 UTC 2005

This is from William Howland Kenney, Jazz on the River, Chicago &
London: U. Chicago Pr., 2005.  The book is about the bands that played
on the Mississippi River cruise boats, especially Fate Marable's band
on the boats operated by the Streckfus line.  The jazz hounds among us
will remember Marable as the man who gave Louis Armstrong his first job
outside of New Orleans, Armstrong being 19.

"[Joseph Leo Streckfus, one of the sons of the founder of the line,] in
particular, made jazz a cornerstone of their interpretation of
America's mightiest river system, going so far as to claim that the
very term had spun off from the name of their steamer J. S., which they
encouraged people to call the "Jess."  History, therefore, hereby
records that the Streckfus family invented "Jess.""  p. 23.

I believe that the second sentence is ironic, and does not indicate
that Kinney has swallowed this story.  The boat in question was built
in 1901 and burned in 1910.  It seems that the hulk was not reused, nor
the name applied to any of their later boats, so, leaving other
considerations aside, the chronology of this story is a problem.  It's
not clear what the source of this story is; Streckfus didn't publish
anything, but there are several interviews and a manuscript at the
Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane Univ. that Kinney cites.

The book indicates that until 1917 Marable had led a small group -- 5
pieces or so -- of white musicians.  From 1917 and after he was
required to work with black musicians.  In 1917 he hired musicians from
Paducah and called his group the Kentucky Jazz Band, the name being
inspired by the success of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
Previously he had not called his music or his combo "jazz".  I'm not
clear what he called his group in 1918.  In 1919 he called it the "Jaz-
E-Saz Orchestra".

An addendum on Art Hickman:
[Those who have been following the discussion on the history of the
word "jazz" will recall that Hickman was a San Francisco society dance
band leader who is likely to have first applied the word to music; he
is also known for organizing his dance band in sections and for using
arrangements that coordinated the playing of the section members.]
In 1919 J. L. Streckfus, whom Kenney describes as a pianist and as
better instructed in music than many music promoters, had Marable
increase the size of his group to 10 pieces, including Armstrong, Baby
Dodds, Pops Foster and others whose name aren't now remembered even by
jazz hounds.  Kenney says that the larger size of the group and the
fact that it was playing for 2000 dancers and therefore needed to be
heard throughout a very large open room made the style of ensemble
playing customary in New Orleans unsuitable.  Streckfus claims to have
decided that Marable's band also needed to play at 70 beats a minute,
(timing it with his stop-watch): if the band played more slowly the
dancing became too sensuous and if it played more quickly the dancing
created structurally dangerous vibrations.  He claims to have taught
Marable, Armstrong and the others the sort of music he wanted by
playing Art Hickman's records for them.  pp. 45-48.


George A. Thompson
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998, but nothing much lately.

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