Jazz from Teas

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Wed Sep 19 23:19:03 UTC 2007

Fred Shapiro writes: I'm not sure why Jerry Cohen leaves out the 1912 "jazz curve" citation from his account of the origins of _jazz_.  Doesn't it seem likely that the "jazz curve" is a usage related to the 1913 "pep, vim, vigor" usage?

I connect "jazz curve" with the sense "nonsense, foolishness", also dating to 1913: the "jazz curve" wobbled so that the batters couldn't hit it.  This was a joke; that spring Henderson, the pitcher, told another reporter that he was going to cover the ball with pepper, so that the batters would sneeze as they swung.

"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."
I'm skeptical about this story; it was remembered many years after the event -- maybe it's so, but. . . .

I still like to derive "jazz" from the French "jaseur".  I think that a word meaning "energy, vigor" would quickly be applied to sexual energy & vigor, but that it would be unlikely that a dirty word would easily purify itself, in the Taft administration.  "Jazz" was pretty widely used in California, 1913-1916, even by a college president, without anyone sowing any embarrassment.  Once the "jazz" fad (music) swept the country, many newspapers printed the word without blushing.
It has occurred to me, though, that if a newspaper editor did blush to print "jazz", and printed "***" instead, or wrote "that vulgar music with the vulgar name", or something similar, it wouldn't show up from a database search for "jazz", which is what has turned up most of the unblushing citations.
Why I connect "jazz" with "jaseur" is a long story, and since I'm typing this with one hand, (because my cat insists on being petted with the other), I'll leave it for another day.


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

----- Original Message -----
From: "Baker, John" <JMB at STRADLEY.COM>
Date: Tuesday, September 18, 2007 5:10 pm
Subject: Re: Jazz from Teas

>         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

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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list