Origins of ‘jazz’ thrown a curve ball


birthplace of jazz? Jelly Roll Morton will probably be rolling in his grave, but a New York researcher has turned up the first printed use of the word in an April 2, 1912, story in The Times.

Headlined “Ben’s Jazz Curve,” the piece quotes one Ben Henderson as saying: “I got a new curve this year, 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.”

Yes, the salient riff here is on “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” But, New York University librarian George Thompson says, as far as he and fellow researchers can tell, “jazz” (the word) has its roots in sports and in the West. Thompson spotted the 1912 article in The Times’ newly digitized historical archives and posted his findings two weeks ago to the American Dialect Society’s listserv (


This isn’t the first screwball thrown into the timeline, says Gerald Cohen, who’s been hot on jazz’s trail for years. It’s just another installment in the debate over the parentage of the term.

Some say it was derived from the name of a dancing slave (Jasper) in New Orleans or a Mississippi drummer (Charles “Chas” Washington) in the 19th century. Others claim that it evolved from the Creole patois jaser -- meaning to speed up, to chatter, or from the Mandingo language, jasi, meaning to act out of character.

It was musician Jelly Roll Morton, though, who often shouted down everybody else, saying that he invented jazz. End of story. His version anyway.

But it’s become that the earliest usages of the word appear linked to baseball and sportswriter jargon, and that in this primordial form, “jazz” implied vim and pep.

For the moment, jazz is an L.A. native. But the experts have no doubt that other references will turn up -- challenging L.A.’s crown -- and Ben Henderson’s “jazz ball.” The search isn’t over, after all, ‘til the fat lady scats.

-- Lynell George