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“Jazz”: etymologyfree

  • Krin Gabbard

“Jazz” (and its variants: jas, jass, jascz, jasz, jaz) is a term of indeterminate origin and multifaceted meaning. There is some certainty, however, that the word first appeared in print in about 1913. Throughout its history, jazz has carried a wide range of significations in spite of efforts by writers and critics to confine its meaning to specific styles of music. Those who have worked hardest at stabilizing the meaning have often been driven by ideological or racial agenda. Even so, their efforts have largely been unsuccessful; in both speech and print the word continues to carry multiple significations. In American and English-speaking cultures at the end of the 20th century the term “jazz” connoted much that is unrelated to swing, bop, fusion, or the hot music of New Orleans in the 1910s.

1. Origins.

A sexual origin for the word jazz is likely if unprovable. In The Dictionary of American Slang (1998) Chapman gives nine definitions, the first being 19th-century African-American slang for “to do the sex act with.” A word connoting sexual intercourse might easily have been called to mind by a music associated with dancing, compelling rhythms, and a highly emotive delivery. Jazz may even be etymologically related to “gism,” a slang word for semen. In Juba to Jive: a Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994) Major suggests several possible etymologies for the word, none of them convincing. For example, the author says that the word is “very likely” a modern version of the Bantu “jaja,” to dance or play music. If the word has an African origin, however, it would almost surely be from west Africa, not from the southern projection of the continent where the many Bantu languages are spoken. Major also writes that the word may be derived from the encouraging shouts of “Jas” elicited by the legendary dancing of a Louisiana slave named Jasper, but etymologists would question how a vocative noun could become a verb. The word has also been associated with the French “jaser,” to chatter or gossip. An intriguing but even less likely claim on the word’s origin comes from James Reese Europe, who organized African-American and Latino musicians into what might be called protojazz orchestras in the 1910s. Europe said that his band was called “Razz’s band” before it was changed to “Jazz’s band,” but the shift from an initial “r” to an initial “j” would have been unlikely unless the word jazz were already in use.

Porter (1997) has collected a variety of articles by researchers who claim to have found the original meaning of the word, but he is highly suspicious of them all. There is no definitive evidence, for example, that the term is related to an African word. Porter is convinced, however, that it did not enter the vocabulary of white Americans until the second decade of the 20th century, if only because so many newspaper and magazine articles from that period treat the word as new and strange. In cataloguing these early attempts to define the word, Porter finds that they seldom refer to the music of African-Americans or Creoles in New Orleans. The term was treated most commonly as slang for sexuality, cleverness, energy, and ebullience. Since words identified with sexuality often enter into more polite discourse with meanings metaphorically and metonymically linked to sexuality, the early appearances of the word jazz provide additional evidence for a sexual origin. Tamony (1958), for example, found one of the first appearances of the word in the sports pages of the San Francisco Bulletin. (Sports writers have traditionally worked closely with oral culture and slang, so it is no surprise that the word would make the transition to written language on the sports pages.) Tamony gives several examples of prose by the sports writer “Scoop” Gleason in March 1913, including: “Henley the pitcher put a little more of the old ‘jazz’ on the pill.” In this usage the author implies the transfer of sexual technique into some other activity, as when someone says, “Hey, that was a sexy move.”

The supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary lists an even earlier appearance of the word (like most slang words, “jazz” did not appear in the OED until the supplements were published in the 1970s). According to the supplement, it may be heard on a 1909 gramophone record, Uncle Josh in Society, in the line, “One lady asked me if I danced the jazz.” Holbrook (1973–4), however, reports that the reference is spurious. Having listened to the record, he says that the phrase quoted in the OED supplement is not to be heard. As of this writing, no researcher has been able to find any use of the term before 1913.

2. Changing meanings in music.

By 1917, in an article published in the New York Sun, the term “jazz” was used to describe a style of music played by African Americans, assuming that the author’s use of “savage” refers to blacks: “Jazz is based on the savage musician’s wonderful gift for progressive retarding and acceleration guided by his sense of ‘swing’.” Although some African-American musicians certainly spoke of their music as jazz, Peretti (1992) has pointed out that most African-American musicians in New Orleans during the early decades of the 20th century called their music “ragtime.” Not surprisingly, white journalists and publicists soon succeeded in associating the term almost exclusively with white artists. In the 1910s Ted Lewis and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band had appropriated the term, and by the 1920s Paul Whiteman was the “King of Jazz” who sought to to “make a lady out of jazz” – perhaps by toning down the music’s scandalous associations with sexuality. During the same decade Sophie Tucker was known as the “Queen of Jazz” and Irving Berlin was “Mr. Jazz Himself.” Osgood’s So This is Jazz (1926), the first published book to use the word “jazz” in its title, is devoted almost entirely to praising Whiteman and George Gershwin for improving upon the folk music of African Americans; no black artists are mentioned by name anywhere in the book. One year after the publication of So This is Jazz Al Jolson made history in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first full-length feature film in which actors spoke and sang. Whereas Paul Whiteman seemed oblivious to the role of African Americans, ignoring their contributions when he staged a “history of jazz” at the famous Aeolian Hall concert of 1924, Jolson at least acknowledged African Americans by putting on blackface in order to sing “jazz.” Nevertheless, for large groups of Americans in the 1920s jazz was the music of Jolson, Whiteman, and Gershwin rather than that of a group of African-American artists little known among the majority white population.

Many of the African-American artists passed over by Whiteman and Osgood in the 1920s have since become essential fixtures in the jazz canon. And even in the 1920s a handful of true believers argued that the word should be applied only to a small collection of the best musicians. In an article written in 1925 but not published until 1929, when it appeared in an English review, Dodge (1995) insisted that the word was being used much too loosely. Consistent with early linkages between jazz and dance (see §4 below), Dodge published his essay in the Dancing Times: “The word ‘jazz’ as it is currently used seems to cover both true jazz and popular music in general. It covers Paul Whiteman, George Gershwin, and Irving Berlin, none of whom I consider as belonging to the ranks of jazz at all” (p.3). Like many jazz writers since, Dodge took a curiously élitist point of view, associating “true” jazz musicians with J. S. Bach, who, according to Dodge, also created “a high development of folk art” (p.5). At the same time, however, he continued the association of jazz with savagery, finding the origins of the music in “the primitive innate musical instinct of the Negro and of those lower members of the white race who have not yet lost their feeling for the primitive” (p.7). Insisting that the appeal of jazz is nevertheless “still to the few,” Dodge provides an early example of how the romanticization of “low culture” has been consistently merged with appeals to the élite in jazz writing.

When Dodge lists the musicians who play true jazz in its undiluted form, he creates a canon that reveals the extent to which musical tastes have changed, even among the most astute listeners. His favored jazz artists of the 1920s were “Ted Lewis and His Band, Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra, Mound City Blue Blowers, King Oliver’s Jazz Band, Thomas Morris and His Seven Hot Babies, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, Duke Ellington and His Orchestra, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, and Jimmy O’Bryant’s Famous Original Washboard Band” (p.7). Dodge’s list of “true” jazz artists is a striking combination of the forgotten and the timeless. The pride of place given to Ted Lewis may not seem strange when we consider the bandleader’s great popularity during the 1920s and 1930s and his willingness to record with musicians such as Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, and Muggsy Spanier. But in Jazz Records: 1897–1942 (1978), Rust wrote that Lewis “was not himself a jazz musician in the accepted sense” (p.954). Rust then listed only a portion of Lewis’s recordings, referring the interested reader to a more complete list of Lewis’s work in Rust’s American Dance Band Discography. Dodge’s claim that Lewis is a true jazz artist and Rust’s assertion that the bandleader is nothing of the sort provide an excellent example of how the sense of the word “jazz” has changed, even for two purists engaged in the same goal of separating the real from the ersatz.

The usefulness of the word “jazz” is further undermined by the refusal of major artists to associate themselves with the term. Duke Ellington, an inevitable figure in anyone’s jazz canon, denounced the word on several occasions. In a 1944 New Yorker article, Richard Boyer wrote, “Duke frequently says, when people try to pin him down, ‘I don’t write jazz. I write Negro folk music’” (TuckerDE, 218). In his autobiography, Music is my Mistress (1973), Ellington wrote, “‘Jazz’ is only a word and really has no meaning. We stopped using it in 1943” (p.452); and “The word ‘jazz’ is still being used with great success, but I don’t know how such great extremes as now exist can be contained under the one heading” (p. 453). Other artists have expressed discomfort with the word. Max Roach was especially eloquent when he observed in an interview with Arthur Taylor (1983) that “Don’t give me all that jazz” is synonymous with “Don’t give me all that shit.” He then said, “Personally I resent the word unequivocally because of our spirituals and our heritage; the work and sweat that went into our music is above shit. I don’t know whether anybody else realizes what this means, but I really do, and I am vehement about it. The proper name for it, if you want to speak about it historically, is music that has been created and developed by musicians of African descent who are in America” (p.110).

There was even an attempt to do away with the word entirely in the late 1940s when the rise of bop was alienating a large portion of the jazz audience. Suffering a loss in readership, Down Beat magazine took action by sponsoring a contest in 1949 to find a new name for a music that could include swing and its aftermath but not necessarily bop. The winning entry – “crewcut music” – was designed as the antithesis of “longhair music,” hipster slang for the old masters of the European canon. Needless to say, the new term did not catch on.

If some rejected the word “jazz,” others, like Dodge, have used the term to exclude musicians who did not conform to the critic’s notions of what jazz ought to be. In the 1960s Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane were accused of being anti-jazz because their music was too extreme, just as in the 1980s and 1990s artists such as George Winston and Kenny G were called non-jazz because their music was too tame. Wynton Marsalis has been especially forceful in attempting to stabilize the meaning of jazz by insisting upon the centrality of blues and swing to the “real” thing. The stabilizing efforts of Marsalis and various others came at a time when the dominant narrative of jazz as a continuously evolving music was beginning to unravel. If for many years jazz styles proliferated at a dazzling rate, there were always clear connections to other stylistic approaches, and many soloists and groups could move easily among styles that were considered incompatible: consider, for example, the dixieland swing bands of Bob Crosby, the many followers of Lester Young and Charlie Parker whose small groups played with one foot in swing and the other in bop, or the “freebop” soloists in the last decades of the 20th century who stayed within a bop framework but regularly took the music “out.” However, by the time Ornette Coleman began fusing free jazz and rock in his group Prime Time (formed in the mid-1970s) the old narrative of continuity had broken down. Elements that critics and musicians had steadfastly excluded from traditional conceptions of jazz were brought in and even foregrounded. By the end of the century critics were regularly celebrating the most eclectic artists. Don Cherry brought Indian and African instruments into his performances; Bill Frisell moved towards country and bluegrass; Uri Caine faithfully reproduced the melodies of Gustav Mahler; Don Byron played Klezmer music; and John Zorn brought a kaleidoscope of possibilities to jazz performance. The definition of jazz no longer involved a set of connected styles. The term instead described a set of procedures which one might perform on any type of music.

Those outside the circle of musicians and critics have been even more extravagant in their use of the term. The word “jazz” was used loosely in the 1930s and 1940s by many Europeans and non-Americans to describe any American popular music. This was true for the Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno as well as for the Nazis and their cultural diatribes.

3. Non-musical meanings.

The supplement to the OED finds an article in the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology of 1927 stating that jazz is African-American slang for sexual intercourse, both as a verb and a noun. The word had surely acquired a sexual meaning in the larger culture by 1930s, when James T. Farrell’s novels scandalized readers with phrases such as “I jazzed her too.” At least since the 1920s, however, when the music and its associations were cleaned up to provide less troubling forms of titillation, the term has come to mean “grotesque” or “fantastic,” as in “She astonished the guests with the jazz patterns on her dress.” The French artist Henri Matisse extended the use of the word to characterize a series of paper cut-outs of circus subjects he constructed in the 1930s. By the 1950s the phrase “and all that jazz” had come to mean “and so on,” as in “He asked me how I was doing and all that jazz.” The phrase can also mean nonsense or a cynical attempt at manipulation, as in “Don’t give me any of that jazz.” As Max Roach ruefully observed (see §2 above), the word has also become a euphemism for more colorful terms. As a verb, dictionary definitions also include “to make more interesting,” as in “she jazzed up the salad”; as a noun, the word connotes energy, excitement, and pep, as in the prose of the sports writer Gleason. This connotation justifies to some extent what might otherwise be one of the great oxymorons in sports history, a basketball team called the Utah Jazz, the team having retained its nickname after having moved from New Orleans, where it was founded. In the 1980s, as jazz became institutionalized and gained prestige as an art music, the term was adopted by the Lotus Corporation to name a software package that added several useful programs to a popular spreadsheet program called Symphony. Yves Saint Laurent even marketed a fragrance for men called Live Jazz.

4. Jazz dance.

For many people, jazz simply means a kind of dance. Consider the following interview from a television program in the early 1990s:

  • Interviewer:
    Did you study acting?
  • Actress:
    Oh yes, I took acting lessons, voice lessons. I studied tap, jazz, ballet….
  • I:
    Really, what instrument?
  • A:
  • I:
    When you studied jazz, what did you play?
  • A:
    No, no. Jazz dance.

The actress casually used the term jazz without modifiers to describe something that few readers of The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz would associate with the music. Conversely, anyone in search of information about what is commonly known as jazz dance would learn little from the first edition of this reference book.

At least since the 1940s Hollywood and the Broadway stage have been home to what has become widely known as jazz dance, a style of movement that bears little resemblance to the dancing of black Lindy Hoppers who first flourished in New York in the 1930s (see Dance). By the 1990s the term was regularly used in college courses offered by departments of dance and physical education in which students moved to all kinds of popular music, seldom including what we would call jazz. This style of dance is most commonly associated with the choreography of Jack Cole, Bob Fosse, Jerome Robbins, Michael Kidd, and Gower Champion. The most distinctive elements of jazz dance reside in what Martha Graham has called “the House of Pelvic Truth” (Kisselgoff, 1998). In fact, the overt sexuality of the dancers’ torso movements is probably responsible for the persistence of “jazz dance” as the term of choice for describing it.

The Broadway version of jazz dance is primarily the work of white artists who were trained in ballet and modern dance. They undoubtedly learned a great deal from African-American dancers, on the dance floor as well as in choreographed shows. For Marshall and Jean Stearns (1968) a crucial moment in the history of jazz dance is what they have called “the miracle of Shuffle Along” (p.131). This musical revue opened on Broadway in 1921 with an all-black cast of singers and dancers that included Josephine Baker. The show had a successful run in New York before it began an unprecedented two-year tour of other American cities that was consistently successful, even if the performers were often at risk because of their color. The show undoubtedly gave ideas to the many dancers, black and white, who attended performances. White dancers probably did not begin working directly with African-American choreographers, however, until several years later, when Buddy Bradley moved downtown from Harlem. Bradley had worked in African-American musicals in the 1920s and 1930s while making regular trips to the rural South to observe the moves of young black dancers at festivals and parties. He then passed on what he learned to African-American dancers in his shows and later to his white clients. Bradley worked briefly with Jack Cole, who later choreographed films such as Kismet (1944), Gilda (1946), and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953). In the 1940s Cole trained the dancer Gwen Verdon and was a major influence on the pelvis-dominated choreography of Bob Fosse. The style found renewed popularity in the 1997 Broadway revival of Chicago, for which Ann Reinking brought back much of the choreography that Fosse had given the show in its original performance in 1975 when Verdon was the star.

Anyone who has seen a show such as Chicago but has also watched films of the improvised movements of African-American Lindy Hoppers in the 1930s knows that there are major differences between two phenomena that have both been called jazz dance. The term has been so successfully expropriated by the musical theater that, in her book Steppin’ on the Blues (1996), Jacqui Malone regularly uses the phrases “African American Vernacular Dance” or “classic jazz dance” to identify her subject. Malone has followed Marshall and Jean Stearns in using the term “modern jazz dance” to describe the Broadway/Hollywood tradition.

Regardless of what we may choose to call jazz dance, the role of dance within the history of jazz should not be overlooked. Major’s speculations about the Bantu word “jaja” and the dancing slave Jasper suggest an effort from outside the circle of jazz enthusiasts to associate jazz with dance at its origins. It is logical to assume that certain kinds of body movement develop before a culture creates the music for its accompaniment. More sophisticated musical elements such as melody and groupings of instruments surely develop after the establishment of dance rituals. The association of jazz with sexuality would probably not have been possible without an explicit connection to dance, with its inevitable correlations to sexual intercourse.

Indeed, dancing is more central to jazz history than is commonly acknowledged. For most Americans “the jazz age” and “the swing era” had more to do with dancing and nightlife than with music. Historians such as Stowe (1994) and Erenberg (1998) have emphasized the centrality of dance cultures in the racial, social, and aesthetic transformations that took place in America in the 1930s and 1940s and that were responsible for major changes in jazz music. Until the emergence of bop, jazz was dance music, although audiences were already watching dance bands as early as 1935, when non-dancing fans crowded around the bandstand to look at Benny Goodman and his orchestra. Even after the triumph of bop, however, Thelonious Monk himself frequently demonstrated dance steps with his own highly individualized version of bop performance.

Jazz enthusiasts have repressed the centrality of dance within jazz history in order to characterize the music as an autonomous art form. Knight (1995) provides a striking example of this aversion to dance in his article about the 1944 film Jammin’ the Blues, in which Archie Savage and Marie Bryant dance to the music of Lester Young, Illinois Jacquet, Harry Edison, and Jo Jones. In a brief overview of jazz performance on film, Knight quotes the answer of the tenor saxophonist Sam Donahue to a question posed by Esquire for its “Jazz Symposium” issue of 1944. Asked how he would spend a million dollars on jazz, Donahue replied that he would make a film: “If I could get Duke Ellington or any great colored band, I’d fix it so you could really see the band and get to know it, instead of covering it up with a lot of jitterbug dancing and stuff.” Donahue is responding to a long history of films that used dancers to sensationalize the performances of jazz orchestras, but he is also contributing to an equally long history of attempts to bring jazz out of the context in which most people knew it best.

Of course, jazz is and is not an art music; it has been constructed as part of high culture and part of low culture, and jazz musicians have been celebrated for their rigorous musicianship as well as for their subcultural abandon. These tensions have always been an essential part of jazz discourse. Nevertheless, isolated attention to the sound of the music has almost always dominated serious writing about jazz. Although much can be learned from close readings of jazz recordings, too much of jazz writing has ignored the extramusical elements of jazz history, including the dance cultures in which the music thrived.

5. Conclusion.

Anyone who has studied language knows that there is no “natural” connection between a word and what it is meant to signify. Terms such as “novel,” “folk music,” and “melodrama” are just as imprecise and have been as widely debated as has the word “jazz.” If only for the sake of convenience, a consensus exists in the jazz community that the word identifies a variety of artists and musical operations with certain qualities in common, even if no two listeners are likely to agree completely on which artists do and do not play “true” jazz. The term has been largely successful in defining a field that is large enough to include many artists, even ones about whom there is strenuous debate; at the same time it successfully excludes artists who belong, by the same consensus, to other musical traditions. There is no question, however, that in the larger culture the word has many associations that most jazz enthusiasts would not accept. And even those meanings that have been most closely guarded by jazz writers have changed dramatically throughout the 20th century.


  • TuckerDE
  • H. D. Osgood: So This is Jazz (Boston, 1926/R1978)
  • L. Feather: “Jazz Symposium,” Esquire, 22/1 (1944), 95
  • P. Tamony: “Jazz, the Word,” Jazz: a Quarterly of American Music, 1/1 (1958), 33
  • M. Stearns and J. Stearns: Jazz Dance: the Story of American Vernacular Dance (New York and London, 1968/R1979)
  • D. Ellington: Music is my Mistress (Garden City, NY, 1973; index by H. F. Huon separately pubd, Melbourne, Australia, n.d. [?1977], rev. 2/1982)
  • D. Holbrook: “Our Word JAZZ,” Sv, no.50 (1973–4), 46
  • G. Giordano, ed.: Anthology of American Jazz Dance (Evanston, IL,1975)
  • A. Taylor: Notes and Tones: Musician-to-musician Interviews (Liège, Belgium, 1977, rev. and enlarged 2/1993)
  • B. W. Peretti: Creation of Jazz: Music, Race, and Culture in Urban America (Urbana, IL, 1992)
  • C. Major: Juba to Jive: a Dictionary of African-American Slang (New York, 1994)
  • D. W. Stowe: Swing Changes: Big Band Jazz in New Deal America (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1994)
  • R. P. Crease: “Divine Frivolity: Hollywood Representations of the Lindy Hop, 1937–1942,” Representing Jazz, ed. K. Gabbard (Durham, NC, 1995), 207
  • P. Dodge, ed.: Hot Jazz and Jazz Dance: Roger Pryor Dodge Collected Writings, 1929–1964 (New York, and Oxford, England, 1995)
  • A. Knight: “Jammin’ the Blues, or The Sight of Jazz, 1944,” Representing Jazz, ed. K. Gabbard (Durham, NC, 1995), 11
  • J. Malone: Steppin’ on the Blues: the Visible Rhythms of African American Dance (Urbana, IL, and Chicago, 1996)
  • L. Porter: “Where Did the Word Jazz Come From?” Jazz, a Century of Change: Readings and New Essays (New York and elsewhere, 1997)
  • R. L. Chapman, ed.: The Dictionary of American Slang (New York, 1998)
  • L. A. Erenberg: Swingin’ the Dream: Big Band Jazz and the Rebirth of American Culture (Chicago, 1998)
  • A. Kisselgoff: “Leading or Supporting, Dance Knows its Role,” New York Times (26 June 1998)