[JPL] First known use of the word “jazz”?

Dr. Jazz drjazz at drjazz.com
Mon Mar 26 22:13:42 EDT 2012


How baseball gave us ‘jazz’
The Word
March 25, 2012|By Ben Zimmer

  One hundred years ago, a hard-throwing but erratic minor league 
pitcher named Ben Henderson was getting ready for his opening day start 
for the Portland Beavers against the Los Angeles Angels. Henderson had 
pitched well for the Beavers the previous year, but he began the 1912 
season with a well-earned reputation as an unreliable drunk.

Henderson gave a Los Angeles Times reporter a preview of what he had 
planned for the game. “I got a new curve this year,” he explained, “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.” The 
headline for the item, from April 2, 1912, was simply “Ben’s Jazz Curve.”

Henderson lost that game, and he was soon out of baseball entirely. But 
we may owe him a debt of gratitude for his wobbly “jazz ball.” In a 
relatively recent surprise for etymologists, the latest historical 
research has located his quote as the first known use of the word 
“jazz”--which in a few short years would bounce from West Coast ball 
fields to the nightclubs of Chicago and beyond. Ultimately, it would 
become the name for a distinctly American music--and a term so 
monumental in its impact that the American Dialect Society in 2000 named 
it the Word of the Century.

While the exuberant, syncopated performance style we now recognize as 
jazz was born in New Orleans, the music preceded its memorable name. For 
New Orleans musicians of the time, what they played in their collective 
improvisations was simply a “hot” variety of “ragtime,” though that 
label was growing increasingly outdated.

Meanwhile, out in the Pacific Coast League, Henderson’s “jazz ball” 
turned out to have legs. While the Portland pitcher used “jazz” to 
describe the animated movement on his curveball, it soon caught on with 
other players in the league as another word for “pep” or “vigor.” (“Pep” 
is short for “pepper,” which Henderson told another reporter was the 
secret to his jumpy delivery.)

In the spring of 1913, E.T. “Scoop” Gleeson, a sportswriter for the San 
Francisco Bulletin, reported on a funny new word used by San Francisco 
Seals players at their training camp in the spa town of Boyes Springs in 
Sonoma County, Calif. “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,” Gleeson wrote on March 6, 1913. “What is the ‘jazz’? 
Why, it’s a little of that ‘old life,’ the ‘gin-i-ker,’ the ‘pep,’ 
otherwise known as the enthusiasalum.”

A month after Gleeson got the “jazz” buzz going, Ernest J. Hopkins, a 
fellow reporter at the Bulletin, devoted a column to the word entitled 
“In Praise of ‘Jazz,’ a Futurist Word Which Has Just Joined the 
Language.” Newspaper writers in the Bay Area and elsewhere quickly 
picked up the new term.

How the word made the leap from baseball to music is still a matter of 
debate. One likely conduit was the orchestra at Boyes Springs brought in 
to entertain the players in 1913, led by the drummer Art Hickman and 
featuring Bert Kelly on banjo. Hickman later recalled that the bubbling 
water of the springs was dubbed “jazz water,” and that the word then got 
transferred to both the lively play on the ball field and the spirited 
music. But Henderson’s “jazz ball” of the previous year makes the “jazz 
water” story a bit of a stretch.

Bert Kelly made his way to Chicago and started his own band in 1914, 
becoming one of the pioneers of the seminal Chicago jazz scene. Both 
black and white, these players mostly came from New Orleans. As Kelly 
later insisted in his unpublished memoir “I Created Jazz,” Bert Kelly’s 
Jazz Band was the first to make use of the word “jazz” (also variously 
spelled “jass,” “jas,” or “jaz”). But there’s no hard evidence of the 
term’s application to music until a July 11, 1915 Chicago Tribune 
article portraying a local club where “jazz blues” could be enjoyed. In 
early 1916, New Orleans transplants started up “jass bands” that brought 
the “Dixieland” sound to Chicago, and over the course of that year the 
jazz bug began spreading to other cities as well.

After jazz music became a nationwide craze in 1917, with the Original 
Dixieland Jazz Band and other recording groups capitalizing on the 
trendy new term, everyone wanted to know where “jazz” came from. An 
advertisement for New Victor Records on March 7 of that year seemed to 
support Bert Kelly’s claim: “Some say the Jass band originated in 
Chicago. Chicago says it came from San Francisco.” Despite that hint, 
the Boyes Springs connection remained buried until the San Franciscan 
etymologist Peter Tamony dug up Gleeson’s old clippings in 1939.

Tamony’s legacy has been carried on by latter-day word hunters who use 
digitized newspaper databases to search for evidence. George Thompson, a 
librarian at New York University, was the first to spot the “Ben’s Jazz 
Curve” article when the Los Angeles Times archive went online in 2003.

“Jazz” still holds many mysteries, and we may never know its original 
roots with certainty. Ephemeral traces like announcements of early jazz 
bands performing around Chicago’s South Side have, by and large, been 
lost to history. But a century after Henderson let loose his “jazz 
ball,” researchers are finally getting a handle on this energetic little 

Dr. Jazz
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