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Wednesday, November 21, 2012


The etymology of jazz is largely unknown, as are the origins of most slang words, despite being one of the most sought after. Originating in American slang, jazz has likely roots in jasm/jism n. which are both defined as energy, spirit, pep.  There are many theories of the etymology of jazz, including being derived from individuals’ names and sexual references. Stories of a musician named Jasbo Brown who, apparently when sober would play regular music but when sufficiently drunk would make wild sounds with his piccolo circulated from 1919 onward. Jazz supposedly came out of this by the audience calling for “more Jasbo” when he was still too sober to play his trademark style.   This is one of the ways it is attributed to African origin as Jasbo Brown was black in all these tales. The in the stories changes between Jasbo, Jess, Jasper, James, Chas and even Razz. A possible association of jazz with sex has been drawn through names of hookers such as Jezebel or apparently their perfume that smelled like Jasmine. Various articles have been written about the ‘true’ origins of the word jazz attributing them to a slang term for sex and the dances and music in certain clubs. They often touch on how the origins of a word can attach negative connotations to the present meaning although they are completely separate. This appears to be backed up by the fact that jazz can be attributed to jism which can be used as slang for semen. Since jasm and jism also have unknown origins the trail leads nowhere. 

The term jazz is first noted in a 1912 issue of the LA times reffering to Ben Henderson’s pitch named “the Jazz” because “it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it”.  Ben`s use of the word did not have much impact its` evolution but is the earliest appearance in print. In the same decade it was mainly used to mean “excitement, restlessness or energy”  before changing to a colloquial word used to denote something as misleading, excessive or needless which is not uncommon in use today.  Other versions of that meaning are expressed in sayings like “all that jazz” where it means “stuff like that” or to mean simply “stuff” in usages like “how was school today?, Oh same old jazz”.  Jazz did not come to mean music until around 1915 in Chicago.

    Reports of the use of jazz orally arise from before 1915 but none are officially documented. The first ‘Jass’ bands were on the bill in Chicago, spelt Jass, Jas, Jaz or Jazz, and it seems soon that use was spread around the country to San Francisco and California. The use of jazz as a verb is of rare usage meaning to mess something up, to ruin, to confuse while other uses in reference to music are much more common. 

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, "jazz (n)." Last modified 2008. Accessed November 21, 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/100938?rskey=txG4tk&result=1
[1] Oxford English Dictionary, "jasm (n)." Last modified 2008. Accessed November 21, 2012. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/272448?redirectedFrom=jasm
[1] Alan P. Merriam, and Fradley H. Garner, "JAZZ - THE WORD," Ethnomusicology, 12, no. 3 (1968): 373-396, http://www.jstor.org/sici?sici=0014-1836(196809)12:3<373:JW>2.0.CO;2-E (accessed November 21, 2012).

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