Behind the West Coast and Sexual Origins of the Word Jazz

What is the origin of the word jazz? Does it come from the music, does it come from slang, does it come from something more vulgar?

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The word, which the American Dialect Society said in 2000 is the Word of the Twentieth Century has a long history. Let’s find out more about it below.

Baseball and Sex

Scholars believe the word Jazz has its origins based on the west coast around 1912. In 1915, however, the word is thought to have first been applied to music in Chicago.

The term may have roots even further back. Jazz is considered a relative of the word jasm, which was a synonym for vigor, spirit, or energy and dates as far back as 1860, according to the Historical Dictionary of American Slang.

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Jasm is likely related to the word jism or gism, which has its roots back in 1842, meaning spunk, spirit, or energy. But jism also means sperm or semen, even today. Therefore, the relationship between jism and jazz may be analogous to the relationship between spasm and spazz.

The term jazz also shows up in baseball around 1912 and 1913, a synonym for movement and for, say, a lively, fast-moving pitch.

Music and California

There have been reports that actor William Demarest heard the word used for music as far back as 1908 in San Francisco when fans were asking for a musician to play faster.

By 1916, the term was spreading throughout the country, from Chicago to New Orleans. In the Crescent City, the first known use is by the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1916, talking about “jas bands”

Many believe that bandleader Bert Kelly is the first to apply the word jazz to music. He knew about the California slang term when he played in the state as a banjoist with Art Hickman’s orchestra. Later, Kelly created Bert Kelly’s Jazz Band. He called the word “Far West slang.” His story, which he wrote about in 1957 in Variety, has been corroborated by Literary Digest, stating in 1919, “[t]he phrase ‘jazz band’ was first used by Bert Kelly in Chicago in the fall of 1915, and was unknown in New Orleans.”

In 1915, Tom Brown, a trombonist in New Orleans, said his band was the first to be called a jass band. Soon after the Original Dixieland Jass Band came along followed by the Stein’s Dixie Jass Band, allegedly named by Chicago cafe manager Harry James.

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It was in 1937 when concert promoter Harry James heard fans shouting at musicians to “jass it up”and he began to market and promulgate the term.

Other Possible Origins

In French, the word jaser means chattering or chatting.

Historian Ken Burns suggests, in Jazz: A History of America’s Music, that the word comes from jasmine perfume that prostitutes wore in the red-light district of New Orleans. To add jasmine oil was to “jas” something up. Burns also claimed the word might come from jezebel, a 19th century term for prostitute.

Final Thoughts

The term may, in fact, not have a single origin. It may just be the case that all of the factors above—slang, jasmine, ladies of the night, French words, and more—contributed to the final meaning of the word that we know today.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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