Jazz from Teas

Tue Sep 18 21:09:21 UTC 2007

        Is it still accurate to say that jazz is a word whose origin is
unknown or uncertain?  I would be interested in reactions to the
following points:

        1.      Jazz almost certainly derives from jasm.  The
pronunciations are the same, except for the final consonant in jasm,
which could easily have been dropped.  "Jazz," in early uses, was
defined as "that 'old life,' the 'gin-i-ker,' the 'pep,' otherwise known
as the enthusiasalum" and as "life, vigor, energy, effervescence of
spirit, joy, pep, magnetism, verve, virility ebulliency, courage,
happiness."  HDAS defines "jasm" as "spirit, energy, vigor" -
essentially the same thing.  The Daily Californian on 2/18/1916 (after
people had started to use "jazz" to mean music in Chicago, but before
this meaning had reached California) used the spelling "jaz-m," though
other Daily Californian articles from the period show that "jazz" was
the word intended.    There are no serious rivals to jasm as a source.
Every other proposed derivation relies on conjecture in lieu of evidence
and requires alteration in meaning and, usually, pronunciation.

        2.      Jasm itself is generally regarded as a variant of jism.
Although the semen meaning of jism now predominates, HDAS's quotations
in the "spirit, energy, vigor" sense actually are earlier, and I am not
aware of any examples of "jasm" to mean semen.  While this may be, to
some extent, an artifact of the sub rosa nature of taboo words, the fact
remains that jasm consistently, and jism frequently, is used freely and
without shame in the most refined contexts in the period leading up to
1916 or so.

        3.      Jazz was first popularized primarily by San Francisco
Bulletin sportswriter Scoop Gleeson in 1913.  Gleeson himself later said
that he got the word from an editor, Spike Slattery, who first heard the
term in a craps game, where another player would say "Come on, the old
jazz!" when rolling the dice.  But there must have been other people
associated with baseball who were familiar with the term and were able
to tell him what it meant.  It was first used by Portland Beavers
pitcher Ben Henderson in 1912.  When Gleeson himself first used the
term, he misused it to indicate that information was wrong; his
subsequent uses always mean ebullient spirit.

        4.      It was probably musician Bert Kelly who first used jazz
to mean music.  Kelly was with Gleeson, Slattery, and others at Boyes
Springs, Calif., when the word was first popularized.  Kelly formed Bert
Kelly's Jazz Band and later said that his was the original application
to music.  Near-contemporary support comes from the Literary Digest,
which wrote on April 26, 1919, that "[t]he phrase 'jazz band' was first
used by Bert Kelly in Chicago in the fall of 1915, and was unknown in
New Orleans."  Kelly himself said he started his band in 1914.  We know
that "jazz" referred to music by 7/11/1915.  Stein's Dixie Jass Band
(predecessor to the Original Dixieland Jass Band), which started using
the name on 3/3/1916, is just too late to be a contender.  Tom Brown's
Band from Dixieland (later Brown's Jass Band) claimed to be the first
"white jazz band," but did not claim to originate the term.  (My
information on bands other than Bert Kelly's is from Wikipedia.)

John Baker

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

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