Word Jazz

It was in Chicago that the word "jazz" (or "jaz" as it was sometimes spelled at first) came into general usage. On October 27, 1916, Variety commented as follows: "Chicago has added another innovation to its list of discoveries in the so-called 'jazz bands.' The jazz band is composed of three or more instruments and seldom plays regulated music. The College Inn and practically all the other high-class places of entertainment have a jazz band featured, while the low cost makes it possible for all smaller places to carry their jazz orchestras.

Where had the word come from? Its etymological origin has inspired some controversy and a great deal of speculation. Was it derived from the French word jaser -- meaning "to chatter" or "to prattle"; or did it come from the minstrel show term "jasbo"? Some believe it came from Creole patois. Others suspect that a Negro musician in New Orleans may have been named Charles or James and that the word jazz might have arisen from the contraction of his name to "Chas." or "Jas." ("Let's have some more of that music, Chas.!"). In the language of the gutter it had a definite sexual connotation. In theaters it was used by actors as a synonym for pep or excitement.

As early as 1908 Jelly Roll Morton, ragtime pianist and composer, had come to Chicago to work at the Elite. But the official introduction of New Orleans ragtime to Chicago came in 1914. In that year a vaudevillian named Gorham visited New Orleans. During his strolls in the streets he came upon a group of four white New Orleans ragtime players advertising a prizefight. The music held him spellbound. He learned from the leader of this group (a fellow by the name of Brown) that not a single player could read a note of music, and that their playing was for the most part a spontaneous eruption. Gorham at once recognized the showman value of this ensemble. When he returned to Chicago he decided to import it. Now called the Brown Band from Dixieland, it was placed in Lamb's Café where, featuring the Livery Stable Blues, it took the town by storm.

Brown's success sent other cafs in Chicago scurrying for New Orleans bands of their own. To the Boosters' Club at the Hotel Morrison and to the Schiller Café came the Original Dixieland Band. It was with this group that, it is now believed, the word "jazz" made its appearance. The story goes ( Nicolas Slonimsky has authenticated it by direct correspondence with original sources ) that while this group was performing at the Boosters' Club, one of the dancing couples kept calling for "more jazz." The persistence with which the couple kept referring to the music as "jazz" inspired the manager of the band to rename his group the Original Dixieland jazz Band. Tom Brown, too, added "Jazz" to the name of his organization.

By 1917 the word was in general usage by most of the leading ragtime bands in Chicago. As Variety noted on January 5, 1917: "The most popular attractions in Chicago cabarets are the jaz bands or orchestras, and every cabaret, regardless of its size, has a jaz aggregation." In March of the same year Victor issued its first jazz record, a release by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band of Livery Stable Blues, coupled with Dixieland Jazzband One-Step. Dixieland recordings eventually sold millions of copies.

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