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Origin of “jazz” is shrouded in legend

July 2011

In the years since its debut in 1980, the Montreal International Jazz Festival has featured such legendary figures as Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan, B.B. King, Ray Charles, Stan Getz and Ella Fitzgerald.

The origin of the word “jazz” itself is shrouded in legend. One theory states that the word derives from a slave by the name of Jasper who lived in a plantation near New Orleans in 1825.

Another hypothesis claims that the progenitor of the word is Jasbo Brown, an itinerant black musician who played along Mississippi River towns and later in Chicago cabarets at the turn of the 20th century. An etymology that has gained widespread currency among musicians credits Chaz Washington, a ragtime drummer from Vicksburg, Mississippi, circa 1904, as the word’s founder.

In his book So This is Jazz, Henry Osgood states that “Chaz had the gift for faking and a marvellous sense of syncopated rhythm.” Geneva Smitherman, professor of English at Michigan State University, speculates that the term may ultimately come out of Africa from the Mandingo word jasi “to act out of the ordinary.” Still another theory holds that the word derives from the French verb jaser, “to chatter.”

This may not be such a far-fetched idea. After all, French was spoken in New Orleans either in the form of Creole or the Acadian of the early settlers transported from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Whatever its origin, the word “jazz” first appears in the lyrics of a 1909 song called Uncle Josh in Society: “One lady asked me if I danced the jazz.” Here, the word refers to a ragtime dance. Its use to denote the music that accompanied such a dance, and, more generally, to a type of improvised syncopated music, is not recorded until 1913. On March 6, 1913, the San Francisco Bulletin reported that “the team which speeded into town this morning comes pretty close to representing the pick of the army. Its members have trained on ragtime and ‘jazz’.”

The original jazz band, according to Herbert Asbury’s 1938 book The Latin Quarter, was the Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band, comprised of seven boys, ages 12 to 15, who first surface in New Orleans in 1895.

Five years later, another New Orleans group tried to usurp this name at a gig and the original Spasm lads protested by throwing rocks at performers and dancers at the Haymarket dance hall. This tactic proved effective as the owner of the dance hall repainted advertising placards to read Razzy Dazzy Jazzy Band. Another legend avers that in 1916, Johnny Stein’s band was playing at Schiller’s Café it Chicago when an inebriated, retired vaudeville entertainer leapt to his feet and exhorted the band “jass it up, boys.”

According to this piece of apocrypha, the term caught on and Stein’s ensemble was rechristened the Original Dixieland Jass Band.

The word “jazz” had been used as a verb meaning “to speed things up” for at least 40 years by blacks living in New Orleans before it attained lexicographic recognition.

The first OED citation of the word as a verb is from the New York Sun in 1913 and it reinforces the energizing sense of the word: “In the old plantation days when the slaves were having one of their rare holidays and the fun languished, some West Coast African would cry out, ‘Jaz her up,’ and this would be the cue for fast and furious fun.”

This sense of excitation quickly moved to the sexual arena and by the 1890s the word was used as a synonym for the ultimate four-letter word. Hence, Clay Smith stated in his 1924 book Étude, “if the truth were known about the origin of the word.{jazz} it would never be mentioned in polite society.”

In any case, whether you are a member of polite society, or a rowdy like me, I hope you had a chance to enjoy the jazz festival.



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