Origin of the Term “JAZZ”

Trumpeter Mike Vax raised an interesting question about the origin of the word JAZZ. The ex-Stan Kenton band member and current clinician, asked, “I don’t know if you have ever heard this story, but it was told to me when I lived in New Orleans back in the 1970s by more than one of the older musicians who were there during the early days of jazz.”

“According to what I was told, there was a classical music reviewer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper who hated the music of Buddy Bolden. At that time, there was no real name for the music. This reviewer wrote that ‘Buddy Bolden’s music sounds like the braying of a Jack Ass.’ The musicians made a contraction of it and started calling the music Jass, a verb which also described what one did in the sporting houses. It came from two sources Jizz and the Jasmine-scented perfume that the ladies wore.

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The one thing I have never been able to find out is exactly when Jass officially became Jazz.”
The San Francisco Traditional Jazz Foundation came up with an interesting theory that Jass was a baseball term denoting “meaningless or foolish talk” coined in the early 1900s. In 2003, a New York librarian found an article in the Los Angeles Times dated April 2nd, 1912 describing a pitcher on the Portland Beavers roster who claimed to have developed a new curve ball. He called it “a Jazz ball” and explained that it was wobbly and that the batter could not do anything with it.

Origin of the Term “JAZZ”Several dictionaries attribute the word to the Creole term, Jasm meaning “strenuous activity, especially sexual intercourse.” As far back as 1860, Jasm was associated with Congo dances. The Historical Dictionary of American Slang suggests that this now-obsolete slang term Jasm, meaning “spirit, energy, vigor,” should be considered the leading candidate for the source of the term, JAZZ.

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Origin of the Term “JAZZ”
Origin of the Term “JAZZ”
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Lew Shaw

Lew Shaw

Lew Shaw started writing about music as the publicist for the famous Berkshire Music Barn in the 1960s. He joined The West Coast Rag almost thirty years ago and has been a guiding light to this paper through the two name changes since then as we became The Syncopated Times.  He has written hundreds of stories in that time, while also doing much to promote jazz in Arizona and indeed everywhere. He taps his extensive network of connections and friends throughout the traditional jazz world to bring us his Jazz Jottings column every month. 

Origin of the Term “JAZZ”
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