[Dixielandjazz] Jazz; what's in a name

TBW504 at aol.com TBW504 at aol.com
Thu Mar 26 03:45:04 PDT 2009

There are some words used in connection with New Orleans jazz that need to  
be defined. Of these probably the least important is the word "jazz" itself. It 
 is a word of a distinctly dubious etymology. Most dictionaries, including 
the  illustrious Oxford Dictionary, cautiously restrict themselves to "20th 
Century.  Origin obscure". Occasionally one comes across suggestions that it 
derives from  "jass" supposedly a slang expression for sexual intercourse. That 
seems to me to  depend on Storyville being the birthplace of jazz. Since this is 
not so "jass"  suffers a credibility gap as a consequence, although it seems 
the least unlikely  of all the suppositions. Mervyn Cooke says that "jass" was 
a derivative of  "jasm" a colloquialism for "orgasm". My favourite, if only 
because it is so  ludicrous, comes in Sweeping the Blues Away in which Master 
Leigh assert that it  " ... probably comes from the initials of the marching 
hymn 'Jesus Almighty,  Save Our Souls'" And the band played "Believe it if you 
like!" Cooke might be on  safer ground in stating that the ODJB changed "jass" 
to "jazz" because  disreputable types were erasing the letter "j" on their 
There  are very many other theories ranging from the doubtful to the 
hilarious.  According to some it came from the jasmine perfume favoured by New Orleans 
 prostitutes, or alternatively from a San Francisco slang word for peppy and  
enthusiastic. The French verb "jaser" - to chatter - has been in the witness  
box. Verdict: not proven. Someone came up with the hypothesis of a derivation 
 from "chasse beau" alleged to be a Louisiana dance figure. And there was me  
thinking that chasse beau was a disease of sheep. Someone else lays claim to 
its  origin deriving from an African dialect without offering any convincing 
argument  in favour. My out and out favourite at the fanciful end of the 
spectrum is that  jazz is a corruption of the Cajun slang expression for a 
prostitute: "Jezabel" -  pronounced as "jasse-belle." And the band again played 
"Believe it if you like!"  Since, as discussed elsewhere, jazz is not a word often 
employed by New Orleans  musicians themselves such fruitless speculations need 
detain us no longer , but  really, jasse-belle! Oh my, oh my, where do they 
dredge up this stuff! By the  way, according to the author and critic Gene Lees 
the first known use of the  word "jazz" in print was in a San Francisco 
newspaper report of 1913 about  drummer and dance band leader Art Hickman's group. 
Incidentally - and I include  this as an illustration of the ludicrous - there 
was a determined attempt in the  early-1950s by modernists in an American 
magazine (either Metronome or Downbeat  - I cannot remember which) to replace the 
outmoded term "jazz", so a competition  was held to find an alternative. The 
winner was "crewcut" - I kid you not! -  music "cut" by a "crew" of musicians, 
all presumably wearing that cool hairstyle  favoured by modernists. Mercifully, 
we were spared that as also we were  "oom-crack". This I recall was suggested 
on the basis that it suggested the  off-beat emphasis on 2 and 4 in 4/4 time! 
The latest (2003) and possibly the  most ludicrous claim I've heard is that 
the term "jazz" came about because of  the music played on the riverboat JS. 
Well I never!
Brian Wood

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