Earliest "jazz" composition? (May 18, 1916)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at BABEL.LING.UPENN.EDU
Mon Dec 7 04:50:42 UTC 2009

Going through what has been reported on ADS-L and in Gerald Cohen's
_Comments on Etymology_ on early musical uses of the term "jazz", I
noticed one composition that has apparently not been mentioned: "When
I Hear That Jaz Band Play," lyrics by Jerry Joyce and music by Eddie
Gray (Chicago: Frank K. Root, © May 18, 1916). Here is the sheet


Phoebe Snow used to go every night
To a hall where they all put it on right
Down at that High Brown Cafe
She would join the dancers gay
She would smile all the while, dancin' around
To that melody,
She'd roll her eyes up to the skies,
To that syncopated harmony

She said now: "O my little honey
(jus' listen to 'em playin')
I feel so very funny,
(see ev'rybody swayin')
When that moaning "Jaz" I hear,
Seems that ev'ry step I take I feel so very queer.
Don't say you feel like dropping
(jus' keep yourself a-turning)
You mustn't think of stopping
(my heart with love is burning)
I could dance with you all night and day
When I hear that "Jaz" band play.

When they start, how my heart flutters around,
When my feet start to beat time to that sound,
Seems they simply won't behave,
I can't help but start to rave
Take your time, baby mine, easy and slow,
Gee! I'd like to know
What makes that band tune up so grand,
And I begin to shout, "Let's go."


Barry Popik has noted a slightly earlier musical piece entitled
"Jazbo: Foxtrot" by Arthur S. Shaw (Chicago: Forster Music Publishers,
© Jan. 3, 1916). Sheet music is here:


However, that was an instrumental piece, so it's not entirely clear
what "Jazbo" might have referred to. Note that the variant "jasbo
(band)" has been found as early as Sep. 1914 referring to vaudeville


So "When I Hear That Jaz Band Play," would seem to hold the
distinction of earliest unequivocal "jazz" music. Many sources give
that honor to "That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland" (lyric by Gus Kahn,
music by Henry I. Marshall, © Nov. 8, 1916), such as these sites from
Tim Gracyk and Scott Alexander:


Gracyk and Alexander don't even mention "When I Hear That Jaz Band
Play" in their chronologies. David A. Jasen, in his book _Tin Pan
Alley_, does mention it, but says it was published later than "That
Funny Jas Bad from Dixieland":

Tin Pan Alley, by David A. Jasen (1988), p. 94
Chicago-based Henry I. Marshall (1883-1958) and Gus Kahn wrote the
first tune about the group called "That Funny Jas Bad from Dixieland,"
which was the first song to use the word for the new musical form in
the title. It was published in November 1916 by Jerome H. Remick.
Another pair of Chicagoans, Eddie Gray and Jerry Joyce, followed
quickly with "When I Hear That 'Jaz' Band Play," issued in late 1916
by Frank K. Root & Company of Chicago. Bert Williams, an early admirer
of the band, is featured on the cover of this number."

However, Lawrence Gushee in his 2005 book _Pioneers of Jazz_ gives the
proper 1916 chronology of "Jazbo" (Jan.), "When I Hear That Jaz Band
Play" (May), and "That Funny Jas Bad from Dixieland" (Nov.) He credits
a publication called "La Gidouille" (August 1987, no. 4) that compiled
"jazz" titles from the Library of Congress Catalogue of Copyright
Entries, similar to the research that Barry did. It's now easier to
verify the LoC info, since the catalogues covering musical
compositions of 1916 are on Google Books:

(page with copyright info for "When I Hear That Jaz Band Play")

(volume with copyright info on songs from later in 1916)

I wonder if, despite the copyright date, "When I Hear That Jaz Band
Play" really didn't get released until later in the year after the
boom in "jazz" titles began in November and December. That might
justify Jasen's chronology. But as things stand, this composition from
May 18 appears to be the earliest known use in musical composition --
and (excluding the ambiguous "jazbo"/"jasbo" cites) the second
earliest from any source, after the July 11, 1915 Chicago Tribune
article, "Blues Is Jazz and Jazz Is Blues." I believe the next known
appearance in print is a May 22, 1916 mention in the Tribune of a "Jaz
band". Or am I missing something?

--Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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