History of Black music: How did we come to call that unique genre Jazz?

Nii Ntreh February 02, 2021
Jazz legend Louis Armstrong on the trumpet. Photo Credit: NPR

The artistic inventions of people who have been held in subservience to a supposed master-race for about half a millennium are constantly under question and that should surprise neither students of history nor everyday individuals.

Jazz is however one of those artistic inventions where the question of authorship has been put to a dreamless rest for a while now. Thousands of academic and journalistic writings have all taken from historical scholarship that has concluded that jazz is the making of newly-freed Black people in the 20th-century United States.

In spite of this, very few people have an idea of why we call it jazz. Or why it even sounds the way it does. As with most things, the content is concretized before a name is settled upon. But in comparison to other western contemporary musical traditions, jazz is unique not only because it is of Black generation but because of its name too.

It should not be problematic to say jazz is western music if the biggest goal of 20th-century humanities has been the philosophization of global humanity through studies of archeology, anthropology, numismatics, law, art, etc. We do ourselves no favors denying that the sound is western as much as it has roots in the musical culture of West Africa.

Of the music itself, the legend Louis Armstrong once advised that “If you have to ask what jazz is, you will never know”. But how did we come by the name? The earliest usage of the term in reference to a music style was in 1915 in a piece by the Chicago Sunday Tribune. The article was titled “Blues is Jazz and Jazz is Blues”. Jazz was mentioned ten times in the piece that described a spirited entertainment scene. In one paragraph, the writer reported the words of one of the musicians in the description of this genre:

A blue note is a sour note. It’s a discord – a harmonic discord. The blues are never written into music, but are interpolated by the piano player or other players. They aren’t new. They are just reborn into popularity. They started in the south half a century ago and are the interpolations of darkies originally. The trade name for them is “jazz.”

If we can skip the casually-referenced “darkies”, we are told, in the earliest American literature on jazz, that jazz is the creation of black people “in the south”. But the word itself is not the creation of the musicians. In 1912, another newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, reported that a minor league baseball player recalled a ball that “wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it”.

Jazz itself is thought to have evolved from jasm, which means zest, drive, or energy to complete some. Understanding how the genre came to be called jazz seems like an aggregation of both meanings as explained so far; first, it is music that wobbles that did not compare to anything America had heard before, and second, it requires all zest one could muster.

Even still, according to Eubie Blake, a Jazz music pioneer who played with the likes of Thelonious Monk, sometimes, the genre was spelled jass in order to attract attention. Like when Broadway picked it up in a musical in order to offer it to polite American society. The term jass is also of 20th-century origin and it refers to a woman who is the center of attraction.

It has been difficult to academically define jazz although it is easy for the ears to spot the sound. All the evolutions it has undergone, including how it was formerly spelled, adds to the mystique around jazz.

Last Edited by:Nii Ntreh Updated: February 2, 2021


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