Word Matters Podcast

A Lexical History of 'Jazz'

Word Matters, Episode 39

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When it comes to defining an entire musical genre, especially one with as many forms and perspectives as jazz, the work can get pretty tricky. Even the word itself has a long and sometimes controversial history. Today we'll look at the story of jazz, from the language's point of view.

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Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: the etymology of an art form. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point. During the first half of the 20th century, the world of jazz had an immensely productive run of introducing slang terms to the language. Even the term jazz itself has a fascinating, at times contentious, history. Here are Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, our in-house experts, to define the lexical history of jazz.

Ammon Shea: Peter and I may be editors at Merriam-Webster and we have been for many years involved with dictionaries, but I think it's safe to say that for both of us, our real passion in life lies elsewhere, and that is with the great American art form known as jazz. And we can happily spend hours and hours listening to this music and talking about it and asking questions. Who is the most underrated, mid century piano player from Detroit? Was it Alice Coltrane or Terry Pollard? And why don't more people listen to Blue Mitchell and Tony Fruscella? and a thousand other topics like that. And when we're recording these podcasts with Neil and Emily, we do try to tone it down a bit so as to not unduly alienate our coworkers, but they're not here today, so we can give free rein to our jazz geekiness. And before we go on, I do want to say and establish at the beginning that jazz is in some ways a problematic word and that's part of what we'd like to talk about, as well as the history and meaning of the word itself and some of the related vocabulary. I want to read our definition, which I think you actually wrote, didn't you Peter?

Peter Sokolowski: No, not the word jazz.

Ammon Shea: Oh, you wrote swing, that's right. So we define jazz as "American music developed, especially from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive, syncopated rhythms, polyphonic, ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre." Now, one of the things that's interesting is that this sense of jazz that we are all more or less familiar with was not the earliest use of the word. The word started off, well, we don't know exactly, but the earliest written evidence that we are aware of for the word jazz, which the OED defines and we do not, is they define it as "energy, excitement, pep, restlessness, animation, excitability."

Peter Sokolowski: Kind of energetic.

Ammon Shea: Right. It was often used in a baseball setting because several of the first citations that the OED has tracked down, which are from 1912 are about a pitch, "Ben's Jazz Curve." And the citation is, "I got a new curve this year, I call it the jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can't do anything with it." That was a citation from the Los Angeles Times in 1912 and another one from 1912 in the same newspaper, "Henderson cut the outside corner with a fast curve off for one strike. Benny calls this his jass ball." So the first time it's spelled with two Z's, and the second time it's spelled with two S's. This is a not uncommon variation in the early years of jazz, both for music and other related senses. A lot of these earliest citations are for baseball or for something like it. But by 1913, we do start to see a slight broadening, at least away from baseball. And I found this citation from a Canadian newspaper called the Winnipeg Tribune and it reads, "And the chorus. They must have put the "J" to Jazz for they teemed with pepper and ginger." And this was in reference to a show that was written by Lew Fields called Hanky Panky, which had run for several years in Chicago, which not coincidentally is one of the early several birthplaces of jazz. I don't think that that was an actual reference to jazz music, but it does exhibit some kind of broadening out of baseball and to other fields and musical field. So by 1915, we see it in Chicago, again, where the early citations are for that. And it's in reference to jazz as kind of relates to blues. It's distinctly jazz as a form of music. And again, in these early uses sometimes it's spelled with two Z's, sometimes it's spelled with two S's. There are a lot of things that we just don't really know about jazz. And there've been so many theories about where the word comes from.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, the word itself has a etymology that is unknown, is that right?

Ammon Shea: But that has not stopped many people from kind of coming up with theories with varying degrees of certainty behind them. But one of the problems with it, and we've talked about this before on this podcast, is that for much of the history of the English language, when we have a word written down, it's almost certain that that was used in spoken form first. And we don't know how long before, but particularly with a word like jazz, which was either colloquial or slang or referring to kind of music that was not yet established, it could have been a significant period of time that it was used in spoken form before it came into written form. And so not only do we not know when it was first used, we don't even really know what the first actual meaning of it was.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. There's an interesting point here about sports in those early uses, because sports journalism was often written in that less formal tone than news articles.

Ammon Shea: Yeah, absolutely.

Peter Sokolowski: And often kind of evoked spoken English.

Ammon Shea: Right. So where does jazz from? Well, we don't really know the etymology. I mean, in fact we definitely don't know. There have been a lot of theories about it, but what we do know is that it was used for baseball and for excitement and some things like that. But once it got applied to this musical form, this Black American music, it just became cemented to it, and not without problems. And one of the issues with this is that there have been a lot of people over the decades who have really disliked the use of jazz to refer to this music. Again, this is something that we have talked about before as well. In some cases, people just didn't like the way it sounded. They thought it was kind of like goofy or whatever. There was this band leader who played some kind of society music jazz, Meyer Davis, he had a contest 1924 and he wanted to come up with a new word for it. And 7,000 people sending suggestions and the winning entry was syncopep. So we can kind of see why that really didn't take off.

Peter Sokolowski: Although pep keeps that idea of energy.

Ammon Shea: Right, it does. And it is syncopated, but you can see how you can put two good elements together and come up with a really bad word.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. And the basic fact that you certainly implied, which is that the reason jazz took off was that it named something that was new, like we needed a word for this new kind of music.

Ammon Shea: It's still, 25 years later, Downbeat, the jazz magazine of the 20th century, was by far and away the most prominent jazz magazine, they had another contest to replace jazz and they came up with crewcut. This was in 1949.

Peter Sokolowski: Sort of as opposed to longhair, which was the term used for lovers of classical.

Ammon Shea: Classical music, right.

Peter Sokolowski: That's a long walk.

Ammon Shea: Right. Before longhairs was used for like hippies in the 1960s, going back to the early 20th century, longhair was used for aficionados of classical music. So there've been various movements there, but I think more significant in terms of the dissatisfaction with jazz as a label have been the actual practitioners of jazz itself. So for instance, Duke Ellington famously despised the word.

Peter Sokolowski: He didn't like categories. He had that famous phrase "beyond category." The fact is, of course, he had such a cosmopolitan vision of his job as a composer that he didn't limit it to an idiom of any kind.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. Miles Davis similarly-

Peter Sokolowski: He hated that word, I think.

Ammon Shea: Right, he hated it. This has not gone away. If anything, I would say it's intensifying. I mean, Nicholas Payton, this great trumpet player from New Orleans who plays in a variety of genres and styles, he's astonishingly proficient in a wide range of musical styles and he despises the word jazz and he is suggested the acronym, BAM, B-A-M, standing for Black American Music. And that position that he has is itself not without controversy, but there is again a definite body of practitioners and other fans of the music of people who are concerned about this as a topic who think that jazz is an inapt word.

Peter Sokolowski: It makes me think of the word label. I think people have trouble with labels. And I think it is important to mention that Ellington and Miles when they made their statements, which would have been in the late 50s or after, it was after a point where jazz was in mature form, was not just an art form, but also a business. They didn't object to the label until the labels seemed to limit them in some way, not just in terms of sales, but in terms of artistic vision. The idea of thinking of labels, because you could say that there were a lot of probably new words from this new music in the 1920s and 30s coming into English when you would call it jazz. And then in the 30s, the genre was really called swing. And then in the 40s, the avant-garde was called bebop or bop. So that you actually had these little mini labels within the bigger label that added new definitions to existing words or new words themselves to the dictionary. The vocabulary kind of keeps compounding on itself.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. We'll be back after the break with more from Peter and Ammon on musical terminology. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin, history or meaning of a word? Email us @wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org.

Ammon Shea: Jazz is not a young musical form anymore. I mean it's over a hundred years old. And it is difficult to think that any musical form or any genre that encompasses everything from Art Tatum to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, it also includes Art Farmer and Art Blakey, to say nothing of Art Van Damme, who's the real outlier in that particular group. These are all entirely different stylistically and in many other ways. You would never listen to Art Tatum, this genius piano player, and then listen to the Art Ensemble of Chicago and say, oh, these are the same musics.

Peter Sokolowski: It's almost as though jazz had to grow to encompass both of those things, but those things were not recognizable from each other's vantage point.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that of course is inextricably bound up in this are issues of race, that this started off as such a distinctly Black American art form. Going back to James Reese Europe, the great composer and conductor of early 20th century.

Peter Sokolowski: And he was a bandleader in the US Army during World War I.

Ammon Shea: He was with the 369th Infantry, the Harlem Hellfighters, in Europe. It's also interesting that this is Black music. This is Black American music, but there are elements of Europe in there and that there is European instrumentation or things like that that were imported over. I mean, it's obviously been influenced from other directions. I'm not a historian of the actual music so I don't want to embarrass myself here. But in terms of language, looking at it, it's understandable that there would be concern over race. And I can certainly understand the concerns that practitioners like Miles or Nick Peyton or Duke Ellington, that they would have feeling that they are being in some way diminished or demeaned by this label, which is confining. One of the things that's also interesting is that the people who have had the most issue, they're not just outspoken, they're prominent practitioners, these are at the forefront of the art. And so it has a real significance there in terms of, they should be described in a sense, the way that they want to be described, which is as musicians, as composers, as what they want. But that leads to the problem of how we define the word.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yeah.

Ammon Shea: Because we are a dictionary and we do have to take into account, in many cases, the point of view of the person or the people being described. That is common practice, you have to do that. But we also have a duty to define words as they are used. And that's where we run into a real thorny situation, words like jazz, because, well, what is jazz? Is it Kenny G? A lot of people would say Kenny G is jazz. And then a number of other people would say, no, he is not. So does our definition reflect Kenny G? We can't really get that granular with our definitions. How would you say that we go about crafting a definition? Is it that we're trying to define the word as a broad range of the educated public uses it when discussing this music?

Peter Sokolowski: This is always the question. It's a philosophical problem to me because you have a definition like this has to encompass everything that it possibly can and exclude things that are clearly not. And that means that you're always walking this tightrope of trying to describe something as generally as possible, but still holding kind of a barrier or a line between this and something else, its neighboring genre or something. If we were to compare this definition to blues, for example, how would it compare? Our definition of jazz strikes me as being kind of classic Merriam-Webster mid-20th century definition. It's very technical, it has big words in it. And sometimes these things are maybe less accurate than we like. I encountered the word swing. And there's a funny story that I can tell about that definition, because the great jazz critic for The New Yorker magazine, Whitney Balliett, who was a great writer, he's the one who once wrote that "jazz is the sound of surprise," which is a pretty good definition itself. There's a kind of journalistic cliche of beginning an article with "Websters defines X as...."

Ammon Shea: Sure.

Peter Sokolowski: And of course, everybody knows that's exactly what you shouldn't do in a good article or a good student paper, but he did it once in The New Yorker magazine, which is this place of great writing. But he kind of turned it on its head and said, "Merriam-Webster's definition of the word swing is this." And he quoted it and then he tore it to shreds. He said, "It's wrong for every reason." And I was reading this as a kind of junior person at Merriam-Webster as a lover of the music. I thought, well, he has a point. It was an old definition. It was too old and it needed to be refreshed, but let me read you what he saw. "Swing: jazz played usually by a large dance band and characterized by a steady lively rhythm, simple harmony, and a basic melody, often submerged in improvisation."

Ammon Shea: Oh, that is so bad.

Peter Sokolowski: It's pretty bad. And there's also this sort of whiff of condescension about this, that "basic melody" means somehow simple.

Ammon Shea: I mean, I feel like we can paraphrase Mingus here and say that's three or four shades of bad.

Peter Sokolowski: It's pretty bad.

Ammon Shea: It's really-

Peter Sokolowski: "Simple harmony" again. And "basic..." They almost seem again condescending and the truly artistic side of swing was played by small ensembles, but it could be played by a duo. It could be played by Art Tatum sitting alone. And so I felt that there were lots of things about this definition that could be improved. So starting with his criticisms, I drafted a definition and here's what I came up with. "Jazz that is played by a big band with a steady beat and that uses the harmonic structures of popular songs and the blues as a basis for improvisations and arrangements."

Ammon Shea: Much improved.

Peter Sokolowski: Now it's not poetry, but I wanted to incorporate the fact that swing could be written out, or it could be improvised, which the first one did not give that kind of possibility. That "as by a big band shows that big band" is a typical and common way of encountering swing, but not the only way, and "steady beat" refers to the actual swing beats themselves that typically don't change tempo within a performance. And "harmonic structures" was very important to me because the form of the music was completely missing from the earlier definition. And so I submitted this to Fred Mish, the editor in chief, who was, it turns out, a jazz lover himself, and he put it into the dictionary immediately. He changed this as a plate change for the 10th Collegiate Dictionary.

Ammon Shea: That must've been so gratifying.

Peter Sokolowski: So it was, it was my first definition in the Collegiate Dictionary.

Ammon Shea: That's lovely. And that works, I think, better for swing, which is a very discreet form.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, it's easier to define than some.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely, than it does for something as broad as jazz. But you reminded me of something when you referred to it as a classical definition, because as we were talking about previously, that labeling any kind of music can be difficult. We call JS Bach organ works classical, and we call Olivier Messiaen's organ works classical, and there is very, very little in common between these two, except that they both play the organ.

Peter Sokolowski: Just as you just expressed the difficulties that jazz holds as a genre term for its practitioners, the term classical music is problematic. Within the field, it usually refers to a period of time often embodied by Mozart and Haydn for example, that is largely understood to be between the Baroque and the Romantic. And yet we call the genre in its broadest sense. And by the way, the word Baroque, which we associate with Bach and Telemann and Handel, the word Baroque was never used to refer to music until when would you guess?

Ammon Shea: Gosh, no idea.

Peter Sokolowski: I know it's an interesting thing about labels because we-

Ammon Shea: I'm going to go with early 19th century.

Peter Sokolowski: It's always retrospective. You wouldn't have known during the Baroque period that it was called the Baroque period. They didn't call it that themselves, they just called it music. No, about the 1950s. And the thing is about Baroque it was a term they borrowed from architecture. So it was used about architecture and therefore art, visual arts, but not about music. And because of the concordance of the timing, that the Baroque architecture was the same period that Bach and Handel worked. It's an amazing thing.

Ammon Shea: Whether jazz's problematic nature as a word aside in terms of vocabulary, one of the other things that I think is always so interesting about it is the large number of words that it helped propel into the English language or that it influenced. We talk about the gig economy and gig came straight from musicians working dates in the 1920s. Things like cat in the sense of a fellow, you know the cats came straight from the jazz scene. Some less obvious ones like schmaltzy. Well schmaltz was of course in Yiddish, it referred to rendered chicken fat that you would pour on your food. And that came in like the 1930s and right about the same time right after it started being used for the condiment, it also started being used to refer to music that was seen as terminally unhip.

Peter Sokolowski: Or excessively sweet even. The term sweet was also used to apply.

Ammon Shea: As was corn, corny and corn. Cornball comes from the same kind of general time period.

Peter Sokolowski: And the word cool, right?

Ammon Shea: I don't know about cool.

Peter Sokolowski: What's interesting and our friend David Skinner, who has written about dictionaries also wrote about the word cool. And the fact that unlike some of these other words like groovy or hap or hip, cool is always cool. Cool is used in the 21st century, it was used in the 1950s and the 60s. It's very unusual for such a term that is essentially kind of informal to retain its youth through the decades.

Ammon Shea: Right. The other words that we kind of associate with jazz like hap and hip, which actually predate it, but there are a huge number of words that came into. And a lot of these are just genre terms like bebop, which then started to get kind of an extended meaning like jazz itself. We use jazz in the sense of stuff, like "all that jazz."

Peter Sokolowski: All that jazz, right.

Ammon Shea: One of the things that I think though that was interesting about this kind of vocabulary of jazz is that if we look at all the dates of when the word started to come in, and again, we're basing this on written evidence, which kind of goes behind spoken evidence, but from the 19 teens through the 1950s, it's this real rich period of jazz-influenced language entering. And then once rock hits, it just drops off dramatically. My feeling is that it's no longer like the dangerous young people's music.

Peter Sokolowski: It's no longer new.

Ammon Shea: It's no longer new and it's not the hip young thing for kids and stuff so it's not contributing the same fecundity to the language.

Peter Sokolowski: But there were musicians in the '20s and '30s who kind of made little glossaries.

Ammon Shea: Oh sure. Cab Calloway was-

Peter Sokolowski: I'm looking at that one and you can Google this, it's called the Hepster's Dictionary and it is online. And it is an amazing document. I'm assuming this is from the 1930s. A word like blip, "it's a blip," which just meant it's an extraordinarily great thing. And Armstrong was a high note on the trumpet, I love that. A barbecue was a girlfriend. So "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," that Louis Armstrong theme song, meant walking down the street with your partner. This is a really useful kind of glossary.

Ammon Shea: Does it have chops? The first recorded use I ever saw of chops referring to a technical ability as something was Armstrong, it's a trumpet player term.

Peter Sokolowski: And we do define it, but you know, it's not in this glossary. But the word chirp is given as a female singer. Canary was another term used in the swing era for the female vocalist.

Ammon Shea: I think Calloway's dictionary is great. One of the things that I have noticed before is that there was a lot of fascination with kind of jazz lingo. And especially in the 30s and the 40s. I have seen several instances of musicians kind of saying, "You know what, like some of this stuff, we just kind of made it up. Nobody really says these words." And it reminded me of that great story with the New York Times when grunge was all the rage and they called up a record store in Seattle and they got some kid behind the counter and asked what the kids were saying these days. And then whoever the kid was cheeky enough to just make up like twenty totally nonsense words and phrases, which the unfortunately credulous reporter from the Times then printed as a vocabulary of what kids are saying these days. It reminded me of that Mezz Mezzrow, a clarinet player who used to play with Armstrong as well, and he had an autobiography called Really the Blues. An at the back of it, he has a glossary of jazz slang at the time. And a lot of those it's possible that they existed only in spoken form, but there are some kind of improbable entries. Like he has half past the unlucky as 12:30 at night.

Peter Sokolowski: Half past the unlucky.

Ammon Shea: Which I think has a real ring to it, it sounds very poetic, but I'm skeptical that it ever entered into natural use.

Peter Sokolowski: How many people really said that, yeah.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. But the fact is, of course that was not just new music at the time, it was also a big business. It was in other words, the popular music for a time. We look back at jazz of the 30s and 40s kind of as an art music from our perspective today, because that's sort of where it's situated in our musical horizon of the 21st century. But at the time it was actually the dance music, the pop music, the radio music.

Ammon Shea: So one of the things that's also kind of interesting about it with the language is that at one point when I was looking for early uses of a lot of these jazz-related words, I noticed a curious thing, which was that in some ways it was easier to find in European publications, particularly British musical magazines. Although we've talked about this time and again, and it's well established that jazz was a primarily Black American art form, you wouldn't know that by looking at a lot of American musical publications.

Peter Sokolowski: Because they weren't covering it.

Ammon Shea: No, they would have pictures of Armstrong and then they'd have 50 shots of Benny Goodman. But if you look at publications like Music Maker or Melody Maker printed in London, you see a lot more pictures of Coleman Hawkins and Billie Holiday there than you would until the 1940s or 50s over here. It was not a fairly accurate representation of the people playing the music. And sometimes that was reflected in the language used to describe it.

Peter Sokolowski: So the early citations of some of these words come from paradoxically British publications.

Ammon Shea: Right. You can find them here, but I think they're not as often found in say mainstream publications. And there were some French jazz magazines as well.

Peter Sokolowski: I always kind of say that the French are obsessives, the British are eccentrics. The French obsessives of this period, the 30s and the early 40s before the war, they welcomed these jazz musicians. And it's worth saying some of these people like Coleman Hawkins and Louis Armstrong, Black Americans, they would come to Europe and be revered as artists and were kind of surprised to play concert halls and even were shocked that the chairs weren't cleared for dancing, because they were used to playing for dancing. You have to realize is the Europeans had only listened or learned about this music on record, they had no idea that this was social dance music. They heard it as an art form. And so they kind of changed the perspective of a lot of these musicians and made them think quite correctly that they were artists. There's a term that the French came up with, that fits in between categories, the kind of jazz that I would call straight ahead or mainstream jazz. Not aggressive, modern jazz, not avant garde, not retro, not traditional, but straight ahead, 50s, 4/4 time, Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, really kind of conventional jazz, the French call it And this is the actual French term le middle jazz, middle jazz. And they have actually invented a term for a sort of slice of the music that we don't have in English using English words. But if you ever said middle jazz to an American jazz musician, they probably would have no idea what you're talking about.

Ammon Shea: But if you say hard bop or post bop, they would kind of translate it as more or less the same thing.

Peter Sokolowski: The limitations of labels, the limitations of dictionaries, we try our best to write a definition that will encompass everything and not exclude any possibility. And that becomes a very difficult thing to do.

Ammon Shea: Right. I think, especially with this particular word, which is in some ways close to undefinable, because what does the word mean? It means different things to different people. And if you have so many people in this day and age who have very strong feelings about the meaning of jazz or just, they don't have any knowledge about what it is because it's not as popular as it wasn't in the 1930s or also there's just been so many genres of jazz that have come along. Again, it's over a century old and what's astonishing about it is always how fertile it's been. And I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, and we were talking about... He was a jazz piano player and I used to be a jazz saxophonist and we were talking about what we listened to. And I said, well, most of the guys I listened to between 1958 and '63 or '65. And he said, I only between '64 and '71. Like these are entirely distinct things. I mean it's really close chronologically, but so much has changed. If you look at any given artists, if you look at Coltrane between 1958 and 1966, this is eight years, this is a blip. He's gone through so many stylistic changes, it's incredible.

Peter Sokolowski: And so a label just doesn't work. One of those things that Duke Ellington said out of exasperation, which is, there are only two kinds of music, good and bad.

Ammon Shea: If it sounds good, it is good.

Peter Sokolowski: Yep.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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