Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

On Opening Day, Remembering How Baseball Begat "Jazz"

Today is opening day for Major League Baseball, though the only game on the schedule is in far-off Tokyo, where the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics are beginning a two-game series. But let's cast our minds back to opening day a century ago. On April 2, 1912, in a Pacific Coast League game between the Portland Beavers and the Los Angeles Angels, a pitcher uncorked his "jazz ball" — and possibly helped set into motion a chain of events that brought the word jazz together with the music it named.

I tell the story of how jazz worked its way from West Coast baseball to the music clubs of Chicago in my most recent column for The Boston Globe. It's a curious trajectory, and one that word historians are still trying to piece together. The word jazz, once it became the name for the premier American musical form of the twentieth century, attracted a huge amount of etymological speculation, which continues to this day. But if we concern ourselves only with hard evidence gathered from primary source materials, the baseball origins of jazz become clear.

It starts with Portland Beavers pitcher Ben Henderson telling the Los Angeles Times that for the opening day game against the Angels he was planning on pitching a "jazz ball," his name for a wobbly pitch that had so much motion on it that batters wouldn't know what to do with it. (It turns out Henderson was the wobbly one — his hard drinking would soon get him kicked out of baseball.) Elsewhere in the Pacific Coast League, the San Francisco Seals took to the word jazz the following year at their training camp, using it to mean "spirit, pep, vigor." And it just so happened that a banjoist in the band entertaining the Seals at their camp would go to Chicago and start up a "jazz band." The banjoist, Bert Kelly, insisted that he introduced the word jazz to the Chicago music scene, and the latest evidence we have from digitized newspaper databases would seem to bear out Kelly's claim.

Kelly didn't get much vindication during his own lifetime. Since the musical style had its roots in New Orleans, many assumed that the word jazz must have originated there as well. But as I wrote in a Word Routes column a few years ago, there's no indication that New Orleans musicians used the term until after it had already become popular in Chicago. The earliest printed example of jazz that we have from Chicago comes in July 1915, while the first New Orleans attestation is from November 1916.

The careful collection of evidence has been carried out over the years by jazz historians in conjunction with experts in word origins. Jazz is something of a holy grail for students of the American lexicon, and countless hours have been expended in looking for early examples. Peter Tamony, born and bred in San Francisco, was the first to uncover the hidden history of jazz in West Coast baseball when he found the old clippings of San Francisco Bulletin sportswriter E.T. "Scoop" Gleeson in 1939. It was Gleeson who had reported on jazz being the word of the moment at the San Francisco Seals training camp in 1913.

Following on Tamony's discoveries, other word sleuths have helped fill out the picture of the early spread of the word jazz. This has required going through reams of microfilm, though now that many newspapers have been scanned and digitized much of the work can be done online. In some cases, the word can be found relatively quickly when a newspaper database is first made available. The July 1915 article that contains the first known use of jazz in the musical sense was found by Yale law librarian Fred Shapiro as soon as the Chicago Tribune became part of the ProQuest historical newspaper collection. And that article about Ben Henderson's "jazz ball" was uncovered by NYU librarian George Thompson when the Los Angeles Times was added to the same collection. Both articles luckily included jazz in their headlines.

But it's not always that easy. First, the word jazz could have many alternate spellings in the early days, such as jass, jas, or jaz. Second, the scanning and optical character recognition for newspaper databases is often imperfect, making it difficult to look for a small word like jazz. And third, a large number of papers from a century ago haven't been scanned yet, making laborious microfilm searches still necessary.

Gerald Cohen, a professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, has been compiling this voluminous research in his Comments on Etymology series, notably in a 2005 article entitled "Jazz Revisited: On the Origin of the Term." There you can find citations collected by such assiduous researchers as Barry Popik, who combed through Bay Area newspapers in the spirit of Tamony. And this lexical gumshoe work continues to this day. In recent weeks, Popik has circulated the results of a fresh round of research, tying the original energetic use of jazz to similarly peppy words such as zazz and (razzma)tazz. One hundred years after the word made itself known to the world, jazz continues to surprise.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.