The baseball origin of ‘jazz’
At first glance the only thing that jazz and baseball seem to have in common is that both have been the subjects of Ken Burns documentaries, the histories of the two institutions are very much intertwined, and the word jazz got its start in baseball, only later slipping into music.
There are a lot of stories about the origin of the word jazz, most amounting to no more than speculation asserted as fact. But we now know that jazz started out as an early-20th century baseball term for ‘pep, energy’ before it became the name for the new syncopated musical style.
The jazz ball
The first known appearance of the word jazz is in 1912 in reference to baseball’s Pacific Coast League. Ben Henderson, a pitcher for the Portland Beavers, invented a new pitch he called the jazz ball. ‘I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it,’ Henderson is quoted as saying in a 2 April 1912 Los Angeles Times article.
Where Henderson picked up jazz is uncertain, but the best guess is that it’s a variant of jasm, a slang term dating back to 1860 that means ‘pep, energy.’ The form jism is even older, dating to 1842, and probably related to the slang term for seminal fluid — that sexual sense isn’t recorded until 1899, but it may be much older, with prudery and censorship keeping it off the printed page for many decades. Various African words have also been suggested as the source, but while those might work if jazz got its start in the African-American community, they don’t fit with an origin in California’s white baseball leagues.
What is the ‘jazz’?
Jazz would break out into the wider world during the next baseball season. While at their 1913 spring training camp at Boyes Springs in Sonoma County, another Pacific Coast League team, the San Francisco Seals, took to using the slang term. Sportswriter E. T. ‘Scoop’ Gleeson writes in the San Francisco Bulletin of 6 March 1913:
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. What is the ‘jazz’? Why, it’s a little of that ‘old life’, the ‘gin-i-ker’, the ‘pep’, otherwise known as enthusiasalum [sic]. A grain of ‘jazz’ and you feel like going out and eating your way through Twin Peaks.
Over the course of the next month, Gleeson would make liberal use of jazz in his articles. The reporter would later claim he had learned the word from William ‘Spike’ Slattery, a sportswriter for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin. Slattery in turn claimed he had overheard the word during a game of craps. But it is clear that jazz was in the slang vocabulary of California baseball during 1912-13, and Slattery probably learned it from baseball players – perhaps craps-playing baseball players. Shortly after Gleeson started publishing articles containing the word, jazz began appearing in other newspapers, and by the end of June 1913 was seen as far east as Duluth, Minnesota.
Art Hickman’s ‘jazz’
It was this connection with the San Francisco Seals that brought jazz to the attention of the music world. Band leader Art Hickman had been hired to provide evening entertainment for the team at their spring training camp, and his band played the new, lively, syncopated music that would later become known as jazz. After the Seals’ spring training camp was over Hickman landed a regular gig at the Hotel St. Francis in San Francisco, becoming one of the high-profile figures in the early years of jazz music. Hickman frequently used the word to refer to pep and energy in his music, but he never called the style of music his band played jazz. That distinction would fall to his band members. As they moved from gig to gig across the country, they took the word with them.
In a 1957 letter to Variety, Hickman’s former banjoist Bert Kelly claimed to have been the first use the word to refer to the musical style, saying he took to calling his music jazz while playing in Chicago in 1914. Kelly’s claim is unsubstantiated, but the earliest known use of jazz as a name for the music is from Chicago a year later, so it may very well be true. In the 11 June 1915 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune, Gordon Seagrove penned an article about the new music titled, ‘Blues is Jazz and Jazz is Blues’. Shortly after that, we have a plethora of citations of jazz being used as the name for the new music.
The idea that a white, Californian, literally ‘inside baseball’ jargon term gave rise to the name of a style of music invented by African-American musicians from New Orleans would seem unlikely, but the evidence supporting each step in the chain is rather strong. But in a way the convoluted origin is appropriate, and distinctly American.