Gerald Cohen gcohen at UMR.EDU
Thu Mar 29 17:23:53 UTC 2001

    Since Barry hasn't responded to the message below, I assume he's
sleeping late. So, here goes.  Yes, Ken Burns' series on jazz was
watched by various ADS-L members and was the subject of some
discussion. There was general agreement that it was a pleasure to
listen to several hours of excellent jazz music, but Burns' research
into the origin of the term "jazz" came in for sharp criticism. A
jazz Internet discussion group would no doubt cut him some slack on
this point, but hey, our group's specialty is language.

    Anyway, the issue is not whether an attestation of "jazz" on a
sign in New Orleans should be considered as valid; of course it
should, PROVIDING it can be reliably dated. And there's no evidence
that any musical sign containing "jazz" or "jass" anywhere can be
dated prior to 1913.

     In Burns' film series, Wynton Marsalis (a great jazz musician but
certainly not an etymologist) explains that the musical term "jazz"
derives from "jazz" in a sexual sense. There are at least three major
problems with this:

1) The term "jazz" is first attested in the newspaper _San Francisco Bulletin_,
March 3, 1913 (in a pejorative sense;"very much to the jazz" =
"nonsense," "hot air") and then, starting on March 6, 1913 almost
always with a favorable meaning "pep, vim, vigor, fighting spirit"
and almost always in baseball articles.  This holds at least for
March through June 1913.  In a year or two the term would spread to a
musical context.  The point is, there is not a shred of attested
evidence that "jazz" was used in a musical sense before the numerous
attestations of the term in a baseball context. Jazz music was no
doubt being played prior to this in New Orleans, but the term "jazz"
had not yet been used to describe it.

2) If "jazz" had a sexual sense prior to 1913, this meaning could not
have escaped the worldly wise sportswriters of the _San Francisco
Bulletin_. Even if one had been so naive as to be unaware of it,
someone surely would have drawn this shortcoming to his attention
after the first one or two uses of the term.

3) Note the article by Ernest J. Hopkins, _San Francisco Bulletin_,
April 5, 1913, p.28, cols. 5-6: "What's Not In The News--In Praise of
'Jazz' a Futurist Word Which Has Just Joined the Language." Note
particularly the last part of the title: "...Which Has Just Joined
the Language." "Jazz" was definitely a new term, and none of the
definitions given by Hopkins has anything to do either with music or
sex: ("This remarkable and satisfactory-sounding word, however, means
something like life, vigor, energy, effervescence of spirit, joy,
pep, magnetism, verve, virility, ebulliency, courage, happiness--oh,
what's the use?--JAZZ.")

    But just to make things interesting, I will write a check of $100
to the first person who can provide me clear evidence that "jazz" (or
any variant spelling) was used prior to 1913 in a musical or sexual
sense. (The 1909 attestation in OED2 doesn't count; it has been
proven to be a mistake.) My offer is a serious one, but unless
something extraordinary happens, my money is perfectly safe.

---Gerald Cohen

At 1:57 AM -0700 3/29/01, Rudolph C Troike wrote:
>Date:         Thu, 29 Mar 2001 01:57:07 -0700
>Reply-To: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>From: Rudolph C Troike <rtroike at U.ARIZONA.EDU>
>Subject:      JAZZ <-- JASS
>In none of the recent discussion of the origin of "jazz" on ADS-L have I
>seen any reference to Burns' recent series on PBS. Didn't anyone watch it?
>The first segment spends a lot of time on the emergence of the musical
>style, and at least visually documents the earliest spellings on signs in
>New Orleans as JASS. (I suppose lexicographers don't consider these
>"texts" to be used for citation, but they certainly seem to be valid
>evidence.) The narrator specifically attributes the change from JASS to
>JAZZ to one group leader (I don't recall his name or the date.)
>         Perhaps some MoA searches for JASS rather than JAZZ would turn
>up some hits. Searching for JAZZ may have been barking up the wrong tree.
>         Rudy Troike

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