Origin of the Word “Jazz” Was Neither Carnal Nor Racist

Andy Senior: In my column last month (“Genre Fluid”), I reflected on the purported offensiveness of the word “jazz,” and cited, without commentary, some rather dodgy etymology offered by a musician of some eminence. I understood that the derivation offered was nonsense, but I didn’t feel it was my place to challenge it. Instead, I considered that my readers would see it as spurious and respond accordingly.

Fred Hoeptner, renowned ragtime historian and composer (and 2022 recipient of the Scott Joplin Ragtime Foundation’s Outstanding Achievement Award), rose to the occasion to debunk the agenda-driven libel of a word we cannot possibly live without:

Explore Upbeat Records

Origin of the Word “Jazz” Was Neither Carnal Nor Racist by Fred Hoeptner

Editor Andy Senior in his June 2022 “Static from My Attic” delves into the etymology of the word “jazz.” He cites an article from theGrio.com by Matthew Allen who writes, “Does jazz need a rebrand? Why the genre’s greatest icons resented the word ‘jazz.’” Allen quotes jazz musician T.S. Monk, who contends, “Jazz comes from the French word jas, which means ‘whore.’ It’s about whorehouses. They played in the jas houses.”

Additionally Senior quotes Allen who cites a group of well-known musicians who reject the term outright, contending “It’s racist. Many of these luminaries have stated that the term ‘jazz’ is derived from white gatekeepers, critics, and pundits who resented the new Black American music that was thought-provoking and inspirational in the early 20th century.”

Monk is hardly the first to assign a spurious carnal origin to the word. A flagrant example is the book Jazz—A History of America’s Music, by Ward and Burns, which accompanied Ken Burns’ PBS documentary film series. Wrote the authors, “. . . 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 ‘jays’n houses.’ ‘The original meaning of jazz was procreation,’ says trumpet player Wynton Marsalis, ‘and you can’t get deeper or more profound than that unless you’re contemplating the Creator.’”

Listen to Angela Verbrugge: Love for Connoisseurs

Arguably the actual etymology of “jazz” was resolved once and for all with the 2015 publication Origin of the Term “Jazz,” a 193-page work exhaustively researched and compiled by etymologist Dr. Gerald Leonard Cohen of the Missouri University of Science and Technology and available online [see below]. Dr. Cohen in turn credits the writings of amateur etymologists Peter Tamony and Dick Holbrook for their major earlier advances in the study of the subject.

According to Cohen, the story of the word’s origin begins in a March 3, 1913, newspaper article, where it means “blather,” “foolishness,” followed by a March 6, 1913, article where its meaning was “enthusiasm, “fighting spirit,” in both cases by San Francisco sports writer “Scoop” Gleeson (who must have experienced an epiphany during the three day interval) in his columns in the San Francisco Bulletin about the San Francisco Seals’ baseball team.

Early in his success Louis Armstrong’s sponsored a Negro League baseball team out of New Orleans called “Armstrong’s Secret Nine”. The relationship of jazz and baseball continued into the 1980s with several teams having house jazz bands marching through the stands.

Gleeson had gotten the word from Spike Slattery, another sports writer, who heard it used in an incantation to Lady Luck in a crapshooting game (“Come on, the old jazz.”) (Cohen discounts two 1912 publications in the Los Angeles Times as “insignificant, being distinguished by their total isolation.”) A number of subsequent instances from 1913, all from the sports pages of the Bulletin, convey a sense of energy or pep. Cohen’s findings clearly document that prior to 1913 the word did not exist in the vernacular and thus had no connection with eroticism or, for that matter, music. Dr. Cohen concludes, “. . . I believe the musical term jazz derives ultimately from a baseball context in San Francisco—not from a sexual reference.”

The idea that white critics, as a racial disparagement, assigned the word “jazz” to a musical style that developed in Black culture also fails. Cohen cites the first known published example of “jazz” in its musical context in an ad for a “jad” band May 22, 1915, in the Chicago Examiner. Evidence from subsequent ads shows that “jazz” (or “jass,” “jas,” or “jaz,” alternate spellings in its embryonic stage) was probably intended. Although an improvisatory style of music performance had doubtless developed earlier within Black culture in New Orleans, it had no unique name; it was merely considered a phase of ragtime.

Cohen comments, “[The transfer of ‘jazz’ to music] probably occurred through the intermediary of white jazz musicians Art Hickman and Bert Kelly. Hickman organized a band in San Francisco in 1913, was well acquainted with the San Francisco Seals, and the syncopated rag he played evidently acquired the name ‘jazz’ (supposedly short for ‘jazz music,’ i.e., lively, peppy music) . . . Kelly later claimed to have taken the term to Chicago in 1914, where it instantly gained widespread popularity. His claim is plausible although not proven.”

Let’s not let “jazz” become a victim of the woke crusade.

Cohen, Gerald Leonard. Origin of the Term “Jazz.” Published by the author. Missouri University of Science & Technology. 2015. 193 pages. Dr. Cohen’s book is available as a free download via this link:

scholarsmine.mst.edu/artlan_phil_facwork/100

Fred Hoeptner is a Ragtime historian and composer of new ragtime pieces frequently performed today. He was a founder of the John Edwards Memorial Foundation which was a non-profit of the University of California at Los Angeles to promote the study and dissemination of knowledge about American folk music of the 1920s-1940s. It is part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Southern Folklife Collection today and contains several important taped interviews Fred conducted in the 1950s.

Or look at our Subscription Options.