JAZZ (or, Ken Burns gets it wrong!)

Bapopik at AOL.COM Bapopik at AOL.COM
Tue Nov 7 19:02:12 UTC 2000

by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns

Pg. 65:
   As early as 1906, a San Francisco sportswriter was using the word to
denote pep and enthusiasm on the baseball field, and there were those who
thought it might have originally come from a West African word for speeding
things up.  But most authorities believe that the term, like the music, came
from New Orleans--from the jasmine perfume allegedly favored by the city's
prostitutes, or from "jezebel," a common nineteenth-century term for a
prostitute, or as a synonym for sexual intercourse in Storyville, where some
brothels were said to have been called "jay'n houses."  "The original meaning
of jazz was procreation," says the trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, "you can't
get deeper or more profound than that unless you're contemplating the

   1906?  Try 1913!
   A small error?  Ken Burns has devoted years to his documentary, JAZZ.
This is something he's gotta know cold!  What does he do?  He copies this
error from a book!  Does he call up the OED to even ask about "jazz"?  NO!
   His brother, Ken Burns, is filming several more hours of NEW YORK and has
yet to contact me about "the Big Apple."  It must run in the family.
   Most authorities--actually, almost all authorities, do NOT believe that
the word "jazz" comes from New Orleans.  It's very clear that it was
popularized in Chicago, and the word got there from San Francisco.  Bert
Kelly's name isn't even mentioned, but he helped to bring "jazz" to Chicago.
   Louis Armstrong lived in New Orleans, and it's documented that he first
heard the term used by someone from Chicago.  He'd never heard "jazz" in New
Orleans, even though he'd been playing the music.
   Ken Burns doesn't know this!
   Who does he consult on the meaning of the word "jazz"?  Wynton Marsalis!
Has Wynton done any studies published studies on the word?  No!  But he, you
know, knows "jazz."  For example: Would you ask a modern baseball player
about "baseball," and forget about George Thompson's work on the term?  No,
you'd go with asking the scholar.  But the Burns boys don't do this!
   At least the documentary won't be used in schools to pass these errors on
to young kids...

(OFF TOPIC:  OED contributor and ADS member David Shulman is right here.  The
CBS 60 MINUTES crew filmed him today, and they'll film him tomorrow in the
Carnegie Deli.--ed.)

--Barry Popik

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