I have always had a fascination with jazz. I've spent over thirty years researching it and an equal amount of time hosting jazz radio shows and writing about it. Jazz music has gone from the streets of New Orleans to everywhere in the world. In the thirties jazz was king, it was the most popular music in America. Jazz has come a long way into the 21st century but what do we really know about the word jazz? Where did it come from? There are many theories and stories, here's what I have found out about the word jazz.
Early jazz men said "to jazz" meant to fornicate, or, as they put it, "jazzing meant effing" (fucking). A "jazzbow" or "jazzbo" was a lover of the ladies. A jazz baby was an easy woman. According to some sources, the word Jazz was also underworld jargon found in Chaucer and Shakespeare. Jazz had many names: jabo, jaba, jazpation, jazynco, jazorient, jazanola. Also jazanata, jazarella, jazanjaz, jazology, jazette, jazitis and jazioso.
Songwriter and musician Clarence Williams says that he was the first to use the word "jazz" in a song. Williams said, "On both Brown Skin, Who You For? and Mama's Baby Boy, I used the words, jazz song, on the sheet music. I don't exactly remember where the words came from, but I remember I heard a woman say it to me when we were playin' some music. `Oh, jazz me, baby,' she said."
According to Arnold Loyacano, the word jazz had different origins. Loyacano was in Tom Brown's band, which in 1915 was the first white band to ever go to Chicago and play jazz. They were playing in a hotel which previously had a string quartet for entertainment. Brown's band had been used to playing on the back of a wagon, which meant that they had to play loud and were really incapable of playing soft. The crowd's reaction was to hold their ears and yell, "Too loud!" Loyacano says that was when people started calling his music "jazz." "The way Northern people figured it out, our music was loud, clangy, boisterous, like you'd say, "Where did you get that jazzy suit?" meaning loud or fancy. Some people called it "jass." Later when the name struck, it was spelled with a "z,""jazz."
The latest research on the word "jazz" points to early use of the term in baseball. According to University of Missouri-Rolla Professor Gerald Cohen' author of a three-volume "Dictionary of 1913 Baseball and Other Lingo," jazz was used in baseball meaning "vim," "vigor" and "fighting spirit" before it acquired its musical meaning. It was introduced by San Francisco Bulletin sports writer 'Scoop' Gleeson as a term to describe players on the San Francisco Seals team.
So whether it is jass, jazz or whatever, we know and love it as great music whether here in New Orleans or around the world.