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The elusive etymology of Jazz

"Jazz" is one of those words that seems just right to express what it means or what it means to you. But like the difficulty there is in finding a single comprehensive way to define just what jazz is, the question of the derivation of the word is, at best, speculative, in all probability: unknown.

It's not that there isn't a grab-bag of theories as to just what the etymology is, though.

The earliest recorded use of the word in reference to the musical style comes from 1916 (though Jelly Roll Morton claimed to have coined it, himself, in 1902 to "differentiate the style from ragtime"). An earlier usage, meaning "full of vigor and energy" dates from 1913. By 1918, it was "known" to be slang for sexual intercourse—though "jass," an alternate form of the word was already known to carry that meaning (and like the contemporary favorite similar four-letter word, it had a variety of meanings and usage within the context of profanity). Also, it was said in 1924 that the word "jazz" had had that meaning in and around dance halls for at least thirty years.

Of course, that doesn't mean it was coined with that meaning but that the meaning was certainly attached to it. And it was a part of the quasi-culture of dancing, parties, and such—generally speaking, a word of "low origin" that was used by those of "low origin" (meaning primarily blacks and the poor) who frequented such places. It's no wonder, with the stigma of low-class profanity attached, that those of more 'refined God-fearing' sensibilities would react negatively to it and the music with which it was associated. H.L. Mencken wrote:

According to Raven I. McDavid Sr. of Greenville, S.C., the 1919 announcement of the first "Jazz band" to play in Columbia, where he was then serving in the state legislature, inspired feelings of terror among the local Baptists such as might have been aroused by a personal appearance of Yahweh. Until that time "Jazz" had never been heard in the Palmetto State except as a verb meaning to copulate.
The idea of rhythmic music that gets kids and/or the "rabble" dancing and gyrating and carrying on—which of course necessarily leads to sexual activity— is a standard theme going way back and continues today. And regardless of any supposed cause-effect claims, the association between sex and music (as with most forms of expression, artistic or otherwise) is undeniable.

Other similar musical terms reportedly had origins in sexual slang (or association with it). "Boogie-woogie" was once slang for syphilis. "Gig," though more directly related to a dance or party, was (along with "gigi" or "giggy") used as slang for vulva. "Jelly roll" was another slang term for vulva (though like that other word, had a variety of related meanings up to and including the sex act. It may derive from the use of "jelly" as slang for semen. "Juke" came from "juke house," another term for brothel (later more generally, a dance hall—though with similarly negative connotations). It is thought to come from a Gullah word meaning "disorderly" or "wicked." One of the places the music was often played (early on) was in brothels which offered dancing and partying in addition to their primary purpose. An earlier, now archaic form of swing—swinge—was used to mean intercourse. An interesting quote from a 1622 poem contains both of last two: "Give her cold jelly to take up her belly, And once a day swinge her again" (John Fletcher, "The Beggar's Rush"). But all that aside, the origin may lie elsewhere.

Some theories think the origin comes from another language. One suggestion is that it is from jasi, a Mandingo word meaning "to act out of character." Another is the word yas, from the Temne language meaning "to be energetic." Lending some credence to those is that many of the former slaves and their descendants from whom the music derived came from West African nations. Similar terms drawn from those sources filtered through Creole were used to mean "hurry up" (which nicely describes the rhythms of jazz, particularly in a context of a time when rock and roll did not exist). Another suggestion is that of a French, by way of New Orleans, word—jaser or jazer—meaning "to chatter" (interestingly, yet another slang term for copulation).

Then there are the "historical" theories. One posits that it came from the abbreviations of early musicians' names (like "Chas." for Charles or "Jas." for James). Supposedly (as the theory goes) there was either a "dancing slave" named Jasper from New Orleans (around 1825) or a drummer from Vicksburg, Mississippi named Charles "Chas" Washington or a musician from Chicago who went by the name Jasbo Brown. Take your pick, I find them all equally implausible.

Another story is of a time (1916 or 1915) when a New Orleans band was playing that music in Chicago. An inebriated patron of the club (supposedly a retired vaudeville entertainer) became overly aroused by the exciting music and leapt atop a table, shouting "Jass it up, boys." The manager of the club then used it for its commercial potential, having the man repeat his catchphrase on other occasions and the next day the band was billed as "Stein's Dixie Jass Band." Recall that this was, technically, an obscene word. Only because of the many contexts and ways in which it could be used was this gotten away with...if it happened at all (the band existed and the name existed, though).

Perusing several sites on the band, it is unclear of the actual origin of their name. One claim is that it was an insult from a heckler in a crowd (still Chicago). Another is that was used by union musicians in reference to the band. There seems some disagreement among members as to at what point the band took the title, as well.

Then there is a story from a certain Gavin Bushell, a worker with circus bands around 1900 or so. According to him:

They said that the French had brought the perfume industry with them to New Orleans, and the oil of jasmine was a popular ingredient locally. To add it to the perfume was called "jassing it up." The strong scent was popular in the red light district, where a working girl might approach a prospective customer and say, "Is jass on your mind tonight, young fellow?" The term had become synonymous with erotic activity, and came to be applied to the music as well.
(Can't seem to escape the sexual association, can we?) Personally, it "smells like urban legend." But you never know.

Unfortunately, no one may ever learn the exact source for the word jazz and how it became associated with the music so beloved today.

(Sources: www.apassion4jazz.net/eoj.html, http://users.netstarcomm.net/etjs/jazz_tidbits_and_other_things_by.htm, www.uselessknowledge.com/word/jazz.html, www.wordwizard.com)