Monday, 11 August 2014

And All That Jass? - Questions From the Twitter-verse

This has to be my favourite question ever. I'm a huge fan of Jazz music, and love nothing better than to put on an album, or sing, jazz. A fellow fan, Laurie from Russia, sent me a note on twitter:
I love to play Jazz piano, but I don't know much about the history except the basics. One question I have is why do we call this music Jazz? Where did such a weird name come from? I can see why it's called the blues, but jazz? Thanks!
Hi Laurie! Thanks for the question, because you know how much I love etymology. First, the bad news. There's no consensus among scholars or musicians on who first coined it, when, or how. The good news: it's fuzzy origins makes the story much more interesting.

Sheet music from 1906, thanks to Dr. Lewis Porter for his research
The original spelling was Jass, and can be seen in early pictures of bands at the turn of the 20th century. One story is that it comes from the African languages. In the Congo, certain dances were called jasm or in the language Mandingo, jasi,  Many people reject these stories however. 

Buddy Bolden, with his horn, second from left at the top. He was the first cornetist and gave jazz its real earthy, upbeat and deep sound. He also developed schizophrenia, and was forgotten until historians started giving a crap.
The musical form we now call Jazz began in 1870s, and slowly emerged from blues, work songs, gospel and traditional European music. 'Jass' came from New Orleans, the birthplace of this music, and was a term probably coined by the local Creole musicians. Creoles are descended from White Europeans immigrating to the American South and African American taken as wives or who were slaves. These people had their own mix of European and African music. Jass in their slang meant "strenuous activity", usually of the sexual kind. 

They may have got this from their french ancestry. J. E. Lighter’s monumental Historical Dictionary of American Slang, includes an entry from an 1896 French-English glossary: “Jaser(or Jazer). To copulate.”
If the truth were known about the origin of the word 'Jazz' it would never be mentioned in polite society. - Clay Smith, jazz musician in "Étude," Sept. 1924
Another story, was that Jass was a name of the perfume used by the prostitutes of Storyville in New Orleans. Jazz musicians got their start in Storyville, playing to the whores dancing, because that was where they could get the best tips and get the best views.  But the story related by the great Jazz musician Winston Marsalis in the documentary, Jazz, was that it was about sex. The origins of the word relating to sex ring true to the culture surrounding the music. A great example of the sexual nature of jazz is the story of Creole musician Jelly Roll Morton. People laugh today and wonder why a father of Jazz music would name himself after a sweet roll. Ahem. He's not talking about a pastry, people. Jelly Roll was slang for the best sexual position a man could get with his penis. Typical jazz musician. He was awesome.

When did Jass become Jazz? The spelling seems to have changed very quickly, and by 1910 there change was complete in signs and advertisements used by bands. But many continued to use the old spelling, as seen in the record labels still using Jass.

This is the first jazz band that ever recorded, 1917, and they just didn't care how they spelt it!
The first time the term jazz appears in print was not in reference to music, but baseball. A pitcher for the Portland Beavers, Ben Henderson, was quoted in the Los Angeles times in April 2, 1912: "I got a new curve this year...I call it the jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can't do anything about it." For Henderson to use the term jazz so casually, means it was already in the local vernacular of where he was from, as well as where he was interviewed. 

My final recommendation to Laurie and to everyone else: Go watch Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns. It is an amazing and important documentary on the history and power of jazz music. I found myself tapping my feet and singing along the whole time.

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