Preview to the Jazz Party column: The unique language of jazz
VAIL CO, Colorado
Jazz has always been fertile ground for the development of slang, and early jazz musicians were like most inventors and innovators in that they created a unique vocabulary to describe what was new and different in their art form.
Even the word “jazz” has a colorful background. The first written use of the word was in 1916 with the earlier spelling, “jass.” Some have suggested that the word was drawn from the names of early performers, “Chas” Washington or “Jasbo” Brown. Other theories suggest that jazz derives from the New Orleans French word “jaser,” meaning to speed up or to chatter. Still others note that the root word was slang for fornicating.
In its early years, jazz was seen as the devil’s music. Played by black musicians in bordellos and bars, it was perceived to be vulgar and low class by the white establishment. It didn’t help much that early jazz tunes focused on sexual matters. “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” by Louis Armstrong wasn’t about a picnic. Barbecue was slang for a prostitute.
“Axe” in the world of jazz is a player’s instrument. Originally referring to a horn, it now means any instrument. The origin of the word is traceable to the early jazz competitions, known as cutting or carving contests (the precursors to the battle of the bands during the swing era). These competitions were where players vied for supremacy on their instruments and took their axe to the competition to cut the other players down. “Shedding” (short for “woodshedding”) means to practice playing your instrument. The term derives from the custom of early jazz musicians taking their “axe” to the woodshed for some serious work/practice time.
To most people “chops” are a cut of meat. To jazz musicians it means something else. Used colloquially for some time to refer to the mouth or jaw, jazz players used it to refer to a horn player’s embouchure (facial muscles and lip used to control air into a horn), then to any part of the body used to play (fingers of a pianist) and ultimately, to a player’s technique.
In today’s jargon something is cool if you really like it. In fact, today’s usage is traceable to a style of jazz playing made popular in 1950s on the West Coast. To play in the “cool” style was to be restrained and detached (the opposite of earlier jazz described as “hot”). The term was popularized by the Miles Davis album entitled “Birth of The Cool.”
A word like “jive” was used by jazz musicians in many different ways – to refer to a weird form of speech (noun), to someone who tried to trick or fool you (verb), or to someone or something that was phony or fake (adjective). On the other hand “bad” had only one meaning – good.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Now in its 18th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music. The Festival culminates with the Labor Day Weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more information..
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