[Updated 26 June 2007 with additional 1913 citations.]

There are a lot of stories about the origin of the word jazz, most amounting to no more than speculation asserted as fact. But patient accumulation of the evidence by researcher Gerald Cohen and others has finally sorted out the origin. Jazz started out as an early 20th century baseball term for pep or energy and transferred over to the vigorous and exciting new musical style.

The story starts in 1912 with baseball’s Pacific Coast League. Ben Henderson, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels invented a new pitch he called the jazz ball. From the Los Angeles Times, 2 April 1912:


“I got a new curve this year,” sofetly [sic] murmured Henderson yesterday, “and I’m goin’ to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.”

As prize fighters who invent new punches are always the first to get their’s Ben will probably be lucky if some guy don’t hit that new Jazzer ball a mile today.  It is to be hoped that some unintelligent compositor does not spell that the Jag ball. That’s what it must be at that if it wobbles.

The next day, the Times reported on the success of the pitch:

Henderson cut the outside corner with a fast curve also for one strike. Benny calls this his "jass" ball.

(Cohen discounts these Los Angeles citations, believing them to be isolated and unrelated and that Slattery’s acquiring the term in a craps game argues against earlier use in baseball. But to me, the world of Pacific Coast League baseball was too small and the teams too interconnected to consider these isolated. The fact that the word doesn’t appear again in print for another year shouldn’t be surprising for a slang word used among a small group. And we don’t know who was in the craps game with Slattery; there is a very good chance it was baseball players.)

Jump to the next year and a few hundred miles north to the spring training camp of the San Francisco Seals at Boyes Springs in Sonoma County. From the San Francisco Bulletin of 6 March 1913 in an article by “Scoop” Gleeson:

Everybody has come back to the old town full of the old “jazz” and they promise to knock the fans off their feet with their playing.

What is the “jazz”? Why, it’s a little of that “old life,” the “gin-i-ker,” the “pep,” otherwise known as enthusiasalum [sic]. A grain of “jazz” and you feel like going out and eating your way through Twin Peaks.

Over the course of the next month, Gleeson made liberal use of jazz in his articles.

Gleeson later recalled how he had heard the term and told the tale to Peter Tamony, who published it in his San Francisco Call-Bulletin on 3 September 1938:

We were seated around the dinner table at Boyes one evening and William ("Spike") Slattery, then sports editor of The Call, spoke about something being the “jazz,” or the old “gin-iker fizz.”

“Spike” had picked up the expression in a crap game.

Whenever one of the players rolled the dice he would shout, “Come on, the old jazz.”

It is evident that the term jazz was floating around California baseball circles in 1912-13. And it began appearing in other articles shortly after Gleeson made use of the term in the spring of 1913. From the Idaho Daily Statesman of 5 June 1913:

Now, out in San Francisco, the most popular word is “the old jazz.” It means anything you want it to.

And from the Duluth News Tribune of 22 June:

Take Frisco, the great slang factory of this broad land. Out there they ask you, “Are you jerry to the old jazz?” meaning thereby, “Are you hep to the—” whatever you are supposed to be hep to. “Jazz” stands for whatever you want it to.

But what does this have to do with the music?

It just so happened that Art Hickman and his band were at Boyes Springs, hired by the Seals management to provide entertainment in the evenings. This was Hickman’s big break for James Woods, the manager of the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco heard him playing there and hired him to play at the hotel after Seals training camp was over. As a result of his regular gig at the St. Francis, Hickman would become one of the major figures in the early years of jazz music.

Hickman’s obituary in the San Francisco Examiner of 17 January 1930 opened:

The man who took the tom-tom throbs of San Francisco’s old Barbary Coast negro rhythms, adapted them to the wail of the saxophone and twang of the banjo and gave the world its first jazz music, died yesterday afternoon at the St. Francis Hospital.

As the members of Hickman’s band turned over and left for other gigs, they carried the term jazz with them. Hickman, himself, did not like the term jazz, but his band members evidently did and used the term to describe their music. His banjoist, Bert Kelly, in particular, claimed to have been the first to use jazz as a name for the style of music when he went east in 1914. While we have no direct evidence of Kelly’s claim, it is a plausible one. Kelly made his claim in a letter to Variety on 2 October 1957:

As I conceived the idea of using the Far West slangword “jazz,” as a name for an original dance band and my original style of playing a dance rhythm at the College Inn, Chicago, in 1914, it is my wish to unravel the skein of ridiculous falsehoods concocted by ever anxious writers, publishers, and music critics who start with the erroneous premise that the jazz-band and jazz style of dance music originated in New Orleans and the etymology of the word jazz could be found in New Orleans or Africa instead of in the ‘49ers mining-camp dancehalls of the Far West.

[. . .]

When I originated the jazz band in 1914, there were just three dance bands of any note in the music and theatrical world in America, namely Bert Kelly’s Jazz Band at the College Inn, Chicago; Earl Fuller’s Orchestra at Rector’s in New York; and Art Hickman’s Orchestra at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco.

Attested uses of jazz as a name for the style of music date to 1915. The earliest is from Chicago, which bolsters Kelly’s claim of being the one who brought the term east. From the Chicago Daily Tribune, 11 July 1915:

Blues Is Jazz and Jazz Is Blues

[. . .]

The Worm had turned—turned to fox trotting. And the “blues” had done it. The “jazz” had put pep into the legs that scrambled too long for the 5:15.

[. . . ]

“What are the blues?” he asked gently.

“Jazz!” The young woman’s voice rose high to drown the piano.

[. . .]

[The blues] started in the south half a century ago and are the interpolations of darkies originally. The trade name for them is “jazz.”

[. . .]

Thereupon “Jazz” Marion sat down and showed them the bluest streak of blues ever heard beneath the blue. Or, if you like this better: “Blue” Marion sat down and jazzed the jazziest streak of jazz ever.

Saxophone players since the advent of the “jazz blues” have taken to wearing “jazz collars,” neat decollete things that give the throat and windpipe full play.

So, jazz is pretty well documented from the early baseball citations in the early years of the 20th century through to the sense of the style of music. But where did the baseball term come from? We really don’t know the answer.

Some contend that jism and jasm, two mid-19th century terms that mean spirit or vitality, as well as semen, are the origin. The semantic similarity seems clear enough, but there is no strong evidence proving a link.

Various African words have been suggested, but while those might work if one believes that the word jazz got its start in the African-American community, they don’t fit with an origin in white baseball leagues in California.

And there are isolated uses of words similar to jazz in earlier decades, but that are clearly unrelated.

But while we may not know the ultimate origin, the origin of jazz is better documented than most of the words in our language.

(Note: Some famous dictionaries contain significant errors in their early citations of jazz. The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition contains a significant error in its entry for jazz. The first citation given is from a record label from 1909. This is incorrect; the word jazz does not appear on the 1909 label, but rather on a 1919 release of the same recording. And two French dictionaries Le Nouveau Petit Robert (1993) and Grand Larousse Dictionnaire de la Langue Francais (1975) reference a 1908 use; these should read 1918. There is no known use of jazz, referring to music, prior to 1915.)

(Source: Comments on Etymology, Oct-Nov 2005; ADS-L)

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