Jazz, Jasbo, Hokum and Gravy
Jasbo Rag - 1913
The fifth selection on the program of the Tulsa Band’s summer concert, scheduled to be held in Tulsa Oklahoma on the evening of July 25, 1913, Vermond Knauss, conductor, may be the missing link, or at least a missing link, in the uncertain etymology of the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Twentieth Century – Jazz:
5. “Jasbo Rag . . . . . . . Reynolds.”
Tulsa Daily World, Morning Edition, page 1.
Although “Jasbo” is not Jazz, as such, the word has long been considered a possible precursor of the word Jazz. In 1922, for example, none other than famed band director, John Philip Sousa, explained:
“The old-time minstrels – I mean, what we in the United States call minstrels;
the men who blackened up with burnt-cork and had a word ‘jazbo,’ meaning stimulation or what is now called ‘pepping up.’ If the first part songs or talk, or an interlude of dancing, or an afterpiece of negro life dragged or seemed to hang heavy, the stage-director would call out: ‘A little more jazbo! Try the old jazbo on ‘em!
“The word, like many other minstrel terms, passed into the vernacular of the regular theatre by the easy stage of vaudeville. In time, it became simply ‘jazz’ and took on the values of a verb. ‘Jazz it up.” Would mean to put more life into the acting or singing and dancing.
“Then, again, if a play failed to get the expected reaction at the fall of the curtain on a climax, the playwright would be called in to ‘jazz it up a bit.’ In brief, infuse an element of greater excitement for the audience.
“And, so, about ten years ago, the word in its extended meaning found its way into the cabarets and the dance-halls, and was used to stir up the players of ragtime who were inept in adopting the split beat or rubato to the exactions of modern ballroom dancing. So far, you see, ‘jazz’ was perfectly respectable, if a bit vernacular.”
Evening Star (Washington DC), Part 3 (Theaters), page 1.
In 1917, the same year in which the word “Jazz” came into widespread use, an earlier attempt to explain the origin of “jazz” also suggested a possible relationship between “Jazz” and an old vaudeville phrase:
Curiously enough the phrase “Jaz her up” is a common one to-day in vaudeville and on the circus lot. When a vaudeville act needs ginger the cry from the advisers in the wings is to “put in jaz,” meaning add low comedy, go to high speed and accelerate the comedy spark. “Jasbo” is a form of the word common in the varieties, meaning the same as “hokum,” or low comedy verging on vulgarity.
Walter J. Kingsley, The Sun, August 5, 1917, page 3, column 7.
Another early origin story also makes a connection between “jasbo” and “jazz”; but with “Jasbo” as a name:
How Jasbo Brown Began Craze for Jazz Dancing
Chicago Disputes Claim Made by New Orleans That Originator Lived in South.
Chicago, June 7.
Five or six years ago there held forth in a Chicago café a group of six negro musicians, whose loose organization hardly warranted the title of a band. In this group was a negro who doubled with the piccolo and cornet. His name was Jasbo Brown.
When he was sober he played orthodox music, but when he imbibed freely of gin his piccolo had a way of screaming above the melody with a strange, barbaric abandon.
One evening a young woman frequenter of the café tired of the conventional manner in which the music was being played.
“A little more Jasbo in that piece.”
“More Jasbo, jazz! Jazz!” some of the regulars cried.
And jazz it was.
Richmond Times-Dispatch (Virginia), June 8, 1919, Magazine Section (Part 4), page 1 column 8.
These purported connections between Jasbo and Jazz have largely been dismissed. The “Jasbo Brown” story is dismissed, in part, because it sounds too much like a folk-etymology. The story also suffers from the lack of early evidence of the actual existence of such a performer, and by the fact that subsequent retellings of the story embellish or change various details.[i]
“Jasbo,” as an expression used in minstrel shows and vaudeville, has been dismissed as a precursor to “jazz” because the earliest attestation of “jasbo” (and its spelling variants) was believed to be from 1917,[ii] several years after the earliest-known use of “jazz” (jazz is first attested in sporting contexts in California in 1912; in a musical context in Chicago in 1915). But the reference to the “Jasbo Rag,” in a concert program in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1913, and evidence of other early uses from as early as 1912, may shed new light on a possible connection between “jasbo” and “jazz.”
But whatever its origin, the musical term, “jazz,” first came into widespread use in 1917. A brief look at the transformation of “jazz” from Chicago localism to international dance and music craze, may shed some light on the possible relationship to the vaudeville term, “jasbo.”
Jazz Hits the Big-Time
The word “jazz,” and the music it describes, burst onto the American scene in in early 1917. Although jazz music (or jaz, jas, jass) had been known by that name in Chicago for at least two years, jazz did not become a household word throughout the entire country until after it made it big in New York and was disseminated through the media to the rest of the country.
The jazz craze may have started at Reisenweber’s restaurant at Columbus Circle in New York City on February 2, 1917:
The First Eastern Appearance of the
Famous Original Dixieland
Untuneful Harmonists Playing “Peppery” Melodies
New York Tribune, February 2, 1917, page 9.
The Original Dixieland “Jazz Band” was soon followed by others:
Mardi Gras at Claridge [Hotel]
. . . Fischelli’s famous jazz band furnishes concert music, as well as the sort that makes dancing an extra pleasure.
The Sun (New York), February 25, 1917, page 8;
The Original Creole Ragtime Band, From New Orleans, in ‘Jazz’ Music
The Sun (New York), March 4, 1917, page 11;
. . . and the Frisco JAZZ BAND in their unique Violin Dancing Novelty.
New York Tribune, April 24, 1917, page 7;
After driving nearly everybody in Chicago silly the Jazz Band craze has hit New York. The Jazz Band is composed of all brass instruments and will drive a lot of banjoists and ukulala players out of jobs.
The first Jazz Band appeared in New Orleans. In Chicago they have Jazz hats, Jazz soda water, Jazz shoes and Jazz cigars. Because it was so popular in Chicago, blasé New York didn’t like the take it up, but one café started it and now there are about ten Jazz Bands in town.
Leon Fatow, always on the hunt of a new idea for a song, wrote a song called “Everybody Loves a Jazz Band” two days after the craze hit town, and he seems to be the only person who is profiting financially by the innovation.
The Washington Herald (DC), April 2, 1917, page 11.
The Original Dixieland Jazz Band soon recorded its first records, and those records were sold around the country, introducing the music and the word into mass-popular culture:
“A brass band gone crazy!”
That’s the way a wag describes the original Dixieland “Jass” Band. Beyond that description we can’t tell you what a “Jass” Band is because we don’t know ourselves.
As for what it does – it makes dancers want to dance more – and more – and yet more! Just have another look at the picture above – you can almost hear the hilarious music of the “Jass” Band in your ears.
You’ll want to hear the first Victor Record by this organized disorganization – it’s a “winner.” “Livery Stable Blues,” a fox trot, and “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step” are played with charming ferocity and penetration.
Evening Times-Republican (Marshalltown, Iowa), April 17, 1917, page 8;
New Victor Records For May Out Today
Have You Ever Heard a “Jass Band”?
The Jass Band is the very latest thing in the development of music. It has sufficient power and penetration to inject life into a mummy, and will keep ordinary human dancers on their feet till breakfast time. “Livery Stable Blues” in particular we recommend because, on the principle that like cures like, this particular variety will be a positive cure for the common or garden kind of “blues.”
El Paso Herald, April 28, 1917, Home Edition, page 12.
Similar advertisements for Victor Records also appeared in at least, Arizona, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, and Virginia, Jazz was everywhere, and it was here to stay.
At the time, however, it was not clear that jazz had staying power. Shortly after the United States declared war on Germany on April 2, 1917, just two months into the Jazz craze, one writer thought that patriotic music may have swept the jazz craze aside:
Patriotism has affected the hoofers in the dansants. They are inventing military steps by the clicking of the heels and the orchestras are changing from the jazz bands of a few weeks ago to military bands.
The Washington Herald, April 29, 1917, page 10. But in the end, World War I may have intensified the Jazz craze; jazz musicians went to Europe to entertain the troops, and jazz was introduced to and embraced by Europeans. Jazz became an international phenomenon.
But where did the word come from? As noted above, early discussions of the origins of jazz music mention Chicago and New Orleans prominently. But in a news item apparently written in Chicago, San Francisco was also in the discussion:
Chicago, April 22. Editor Hustler: Whether you spell it Jass-Jaz or Jazz, it is all the same when it comes to the rollicking and at times ferocious music they make. It is said the Jas bands originated in San Francisco. However, that may be they have taken by storm, and the music is heard wherever the “light fantastic” is tripped.
French Broad Hustler (Hendersonville, NC), April 26, 1917, page 4.
About Jazz Music.
The craze has struck Columbia. It “jazzed” in a week or two ago. It is the latest from the East, that region east of the Mississippi. In the East, jazz music is blamed on San Francisco, which in turn passes the buck to New Orleans.
The Daily Missourian, May 1, 1917, page 2.
And “jasbo”? The B-side of Columbia Record’s recording of Leon Fatow’s early Jazz song, “Everybody loves a “Jass Band,” was, “Ephraham’s Jazbo Band.”[iii] “Jasbo” was also mentioned in an early discussion of the origin of the word, “jazz,” just weeks after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band opened at Reisenweber’s:
The latest thing in the cabarets is the “jazz band,” the name of which, presumably, is a contraction of the well known jasbo, which requires no introduction. The jazz band brings cubistry into music – it plays on mandolins, jugs, tin pans and the nerves of the auditor.
George S. Kaufman, New York Tribune, March 11, 1917, section 4, page 3, column 7.
Reports of concerts given by a United States Army jazz band upon its return from Europe at the end of World War I, also suggest such a link.
Before reviewing the early, pre-jazz music use of “jasbo” in music and entertainment, let’s look at the early, pre-jazz music use of the word “jazz,” and trace its transition from Western sporting slang to a musical term used in Chicago in 1915. The key player seems to be the jazz banjo player, Bert Kelly, who travelled from San Francisco to Chicago in about 1914, and named his music “jazz” by about mid-1915.
It happened at a wild, movie industry party – perfect!
“Jazz” – the Word – the Early Days
The earliest attestations of the word, “Jazz,” have been well-chronicled and analyzed by others. Excellent summaries of the early appearances of “jazz” in print can be found at Dave Wilton’s, Wordorigins.org, and Michael Quinion’s, World Wide Words, both of whom credit Gerald Cohen, the editor of the journal, Comments on Etymology, for collecting and analyzing the early attestations of the word, “jazz”.
Cohen’s earliest find is from the Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1912. Ben Henderson, a pitcher for the Portland Beavers of the Pacific Coast League, described his new curve ball; “I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.”
[For more information on Ben Henderson, his career, and the success (or lack thereof) of his "Jazz" ball, see my post: Ben Henderson's Trouble with the Curve.]
In March, 1913, during the San Francisco Seals baseball team’s spring training camp, “Scoop” Gleeson wrote of the players’ enthusiasm:
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.
San Francisco Bulletin, March 6, 1913 (wordorigins.org).
Gleeson is said to have used the word “liberally” throughout 1913. Years later, in a report published in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in 1938, Gleeson said that he had learned the word from “William (“Spike”) Slattery, then sports editor of The[(San Francisco)] Call,” while seated around the dinner table at Boyes Springs, in Sonoma County, near San Francisco. San Francisco Call-Bulletin, September 3, 1938 (wordorigins.org).
The story is plausible. “Spike” Slattery, himself, used the word “jazz” in 1913:
Gunboat Smith[iv] must have taken several shots of that old jazz tonic before making up his mind to fight Sam Langford in New York. Of course it is barely possible that they won’t fight at all, but the latest reports say that the match is cut and dried because Promoter Billy Gibson squirmed around till he detected and proved a flaw in the edict of the New York boxing commission barring negroes from meeting white men in Gotham.
The San Francisco Call, September 22, 1913, page 7.
“Jazz” appeared in the Call at least one more time in 1913. I can’t say that I completely understand its intended meaning in this context, but here it is:
Chesty Los Angeleno There with the Jazz.
While the Parade was going up Market street a friend of mine introduced me to a man from Los Angeles. Naturally I asked him if he had come to San Francisco for the Festival.
“Not at all,” replied the Gentleman from the South, “not at all. I merely came up here at this time to avoid the crowd at home.”
And, as matter of fact, I really believe he thinks he meant it.
The San Francisco Call, October 22, 1913, page 3.
The word “jazz” appears to have continued in use, in the American West, well into 1916, after it had become a musical term in Chicago, and before it became a widely known musical term in early 1917:
Chance Plays Today.
San Francisco, May 16. – Frank Chance was due to appear in San Francisco today for the first time in a Los Angeles uniform and the bayside fans designated it “Frank Chance day” in his honor. The “peerless leader” planned to perform for a spell on the first sack, his own old stamping ground, and show the bleachers that he still has plenty of jazz.
Daily Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), May 16, 1916, Page 6.
In a story about the University of Arizona’s upcoming football game against USC, to be played in Phoenix:
The Wildcat Special will leave Tucson for Phoenix Friday night, bearing all the university students, the Wildcat Military band, and a number of the town people. . . . Much enthusiasm is being shown by the Wildcat delegation and if enthusiasm and Arizona’s famous wildcat “Jazz” will win the game, the game is won.
Arizona Republican, December 6, 1916, page 7.
A more ambiguous use of the term “jazz,” appeared in a Western newspaper on February 2, 1917, the same day on which the Original Dixieland Jazz Band opened at Riesenweber’s:
O.A.C. [(Oregon Agricultural College – now Oregon State University)] Glee Club – 20 college men with Jazz
Rogue River Courier (Grant’s Pass, Oregon), February 2, 1917, page 2. Presumably, this would have been in the Western sense, of vim and vigor – the singers “have jazz” – they are not singing “jazz.”
But while “jazz” appears to have retained its vim-and-vigor sense out West, the word had taken on a more musical sense in Chicago, as early as July, 1915. Curiously enough, the word may have made it to Chicago via the San Francisco Seals’ spring training camp in 1913.
“Jazz Music” Goes to Spring Training
Several factors that connect the West Coast slang word, “jazz,” to jazz music and Chicago came together at Boyes Springs during the Seals’ spring training camp for the 1913 season. “Scoop” Gleeson and “Spike Slattery were there covering the Seals. Art Hickman, a vaudeville theater manager who would later become a famous jazz band leader, was there. Jazz banjo player, Bert Kelly, who played in jazz bands in Chicago starting in at least 1915 may have been there (he was at spring training in 1914, and was an associate of Art Hickman’s). And the Chicago White Sox were there for a pre-season exhibition game.
Art Hickman was an early jazz figure from San Francisco. His obituary in the San Francisco Examiner, of 17 January 1930, claimed (exaggerated) that Hickman “gave the world its first jazz music.”[v] Although he would eventually become a famous jazz band leader (he scored his first big hit with The Rose Room in 1917, and performed in New York City in 1919), he was not yet a bandleader in 1913; he may not have even been a musician yet. In 1913, Art Hickman was the “master of ceremonies” at Boyes Springs.[vi] It is not clear whether the “master of ceremonies,” was a musical position, but Hickman, whose mother was purportedly a vaudeville performer,[vii] had been in the entertainment business in San Francisco for more than fifteen years:
For 12 years Hickman was associated with the Chutes theater, during most of which time he was stage director. Later he took charge of the Garrick and opened it as a vaudeville theater. In his new enterprise [(as manager of the Dipenbrock vaudeville theater in Sacramento)] his many friends will wish him a continuance of the success he has achieved in this city.
The San Francisco Call, November 21, 1912, page 4. Although he opened the Garrick as a vaudeville theater, it was later converted into a movie theater, or “nickelodeon”:
More than 6,000 persons passed through the Garrick’s doors last Sunday between the hours of 11 in the morning and 11 at night, and the Garrick is, though the largest in San Francisco – Hickman says it’s the largest west of the MIssissippi – but one of hundreds of nickelodeons in this city.
The San Francisco Call, April 20, 1911, page 30.
Whatever success Hickman enjoyed in Sacramento, it must have been short-lived, as he was back near San Francisco a few months later, as “master of ceremonies” at Boyes Springs.
When the Chicago White Sox second-team came to Boyes Springs to play the Seals in an exhibition game, Art Hickman drove them to their hotel:
The Sox arrived at El Verano about 10 o’clock this morning and will be brought here in a big carryall auto under the chaperonage of Art Hickman. They are expected to remain here tomorrow night and will be entertained in style.
The San Francisco Call, March 25, 1913.
William (“Spike”) Slattery (who taught the word, “jazz,” to “Scoop” Gleeson) wrote the obituary for the game:
Sonoma Fans in Droves Witness Awful Carnage
Boyes Springs, March 25. – The beautiful Sonoma valley had its first touch of big league ball this afternoon and the big leaguers from dear old Chicago town gave our Seals what is known in the big league parlance as the once over. It was a 4 to 1 defeat and it caused much pain and anguish among the spectators, all of whom were Seal boosters and glad to be pegged as such.
The San Francisco Call, March 26, 1913, page 9.
Jazz banjo player, Bert Kelly, who may not have performed at Boyes springs during spring training in 1913 but who likely played there during spring training in 1914,[viii] claims to have been the first person to use the word, “jazz” in association with music.
“Jazz” Music – Chicago 1915
In a letter to the editor, published in Variety in 1957, Kelly claimed to have “conceived the idea of using the Far West slangword “jazz,” as a name for an original dance band and my original style of playing a dance rhythm at the College Inn, Chicago, in 1914 . . . .”[ix] His story is consistent, for the most part, by an article on the history of jazz that was published in 1919.
Walter J. Kingsley, who wrote the piece in The Sun in 1917, noting the similarity between the word “jazz” and the vaudeville phrases, “jaz her up” and “jasbo,” wrote a follow-up to that article in 1919. Kingsley, the “head of the bureau of research of the B. F. Keith Vaudeville Circuit,” claimed to have interviewed “every artist of the Keith circuits who might have been by way of picking up any information on the subject [of jazz] and they have brought back to the Palace Theatre much light on a topic that has mystified the lighter musical authorities.”[x] Kingsley’s version of events corroborates Kelly’s recollections of 1957, except for the year in which it happened – 1915, not 1914:
In 1915 Bert Kelly was playing in the College Inn, Chicago, with an orchestra made up of himself, drums and director; Wheeler Wadsworth (now with Lucile Cavanagh), saxophone; William Ahearn, U. S. A. [(United States Army)], piano, and Sam Baum, drummer. This quartet played “blues” and “hesitations” and quaint syncopated melodies, and were quite the craze in the night life of Chicago.
Thomas Meighan, the movie star, gave a party one night for movie folk and had the Kelly band for dance music. In the party were such famous folk as Emmy Wehlen, Julian Eltinge, Jeanne Eagels and Grace George. Motion pictures were taken by Richard Travers of Essanay, and on the film showing the musicians he placed a caption reading, “The Originators of Jazz.” Thereafter it was the “Jazz Band,” and the word has now invaded Europe. That party really started the countrywide vogue of jazz music. Kelly and his band are now playing for Frisco and making a musical hit of their own.
Walter J. Kingsley, The Sun (New York), February 9, 1919, section 6 (special feature magazine), page 6.
Even then, during the early days of jazz, there were quarrels over bragging rights for the origins of jazz music, and the terms “jazz” and “jazz band.” To support his article, Kingsley elicited a “sworn statement from Bert Kelly,” which read, in part:
“The phrase ‘jazz band’ was first used by Bert Kelly in Chicago in the fall of 1915 and was unknown in New Orleans. In March, 1916, the first New Orleans band of cornet, clarinet, trombone, drums and piano arrived in Chicago to play in the Lambs’ Café; it was called ‘Brown’s Band from Dixieland.’ The band was brought from New Orleans on recommendation of Frisco, who was then dancing in the Lambs’ Café. [Note they did not use the ‘jazz band.’] The band consisted of Tom Brown, trombone (now with Bert Kelly’s Jazz Band); Raymond Lopez, cornet (now with Blossom Seeley); Gus Mueller, clarinet, United States Army; William Lambert, drums, United States Army. . . .”
Kingsley, The Sun, February 9, 1919. Since Kelly, himself, writing in 1919, dated the first use of “jazz” to mid-1915, his recollections of 1957 likely misstated the year.
In any case, the date and location of the earliest copyrighted piece of music using the word “Jazz” (or, in this case, “Jaz”), that I could find, is consistent with Kelly’s story:
When I Hear That Jaz Band Play; words and music by Eddie Gray . . . © 1 c. May 18, 1916 . . . Frank K. Root & co., Chicago.
The suggestion that Chicago is the location where “jazz” first emerged as a musical term is also consistent with many other early references to “jazz” from the period from 1915 through early 1917:
Eighth Troops Swing in Camp to “Jaz” Band. San Antonio, Tex., July 6. (Special) – A report from sources close to headquarters says that the Eighth Illinois infantry is to be moved down to the border within five days. Gen Funston would not confirm the report.
Over the hills of Shoemaker Mud, and clear as sleighbells, through the sultry valley came a tune that was freighted with homesickness for Chicago troops. Thirty-fifth street, with its tinkling ram-atams, had marched up overnight behind those dun hillocks to the west – not at all. It was just the “Jaz band” of the Eighth Illinois infantry making light the steps to camp for the Negro doughboys.
Uncheered, but watched with more interest and curiosity than any troops that have yet arrived, the Colored regiment from Chicago, a long khaki centipede, trailed into Camp Illinois this afternoon and pitched its tents on the one vacant allotment remaining on the maneuver field. . . .
In the Eighth regiment are preachers, “Jaz” musicians, postal clerks, porters, bell hops, doctors, lawyers, and day laborers, all here, just as are the white men, on the country’s business.
The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City, Utah), July 8, 1916, page 4, column 2.
|The Officers of the Eighth Illinois Infantry six years later, on June 2, 1922.|
In a report of a commercial league baseball game played by Western Electric Company workers at their Hawthorne plant, in Cicero, Illinois:
Commercial League Baseball
Wester Electric Co. vs. Butler Bros.
A tremendous throung of rooters gathered at the White Giants Park on June 24th and witnessed Mager’s aggregation put the kibosh on Butler’s pennant aspirations A conservative estimate of the crowd present was 3,500, of whom many were ladies – more power to them. The rooters’ club was accompanied by the famous W. E. Jass Band, led by the distinguished Signor Tobasco O’Donnello.
Western Electric News, volume 4, number 6, August, 1916, page 25.
In a report about the convention for the fuel-oil industry, held in Chicago in 1916:
The vaudeville program included musical numbers by a local “jass” band, cartoons by Sydney Smith and a wonderful trained elephant act, by Mlle. Somebody-or-other and two real, live, full grown and highly intelligent elephants, who did everything but talk and sing.
The Oil Trade Journal, volume 7, number 11, November 1916, page 42.
References to jazz music could also be found outside Chicago, even before the “jazz” craze swept New York City. For example, the song, “That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland” was registered with the Canadian Patent Office on November 8, 1916 (the song was submitted by a publisher from New York City).[xi] Ben Zimmer uncovered an article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune of November 14, 1916, announcing an upcoming “Jas parade” in recognition of the “jas bands” of New Orleans.
On February 2, 1917, the same day that Reisenweber’s first advertised the Original Dixieland “Jazz Band,” the following notice appeared in Tennessee:
Theatrical Notices. The Bijou Theatre. Mme. Rose’s Octoroons and the Georgia Minstrels Here Next Week. . . . Commencing Monday night, February 5, the Bijou theatre will offer Mme. Rose’s Octoroons and Original Georgia Minstrels, said to be the best colored organization since the days of the famous Williams and Walker. The show is at the Gaiety theatre in Louisville this week and has been turning away crowds. Conspicuous among the features will be found a real “Jazz” band and symphony orchestra.
The Nashville Globe, February 2, 1917, page 5.
Less than one week later, the following item from St. Louis appeared in Washington State:
St. Louis, Mo., Feb. 8. - We’re in a cabaret off Olive-st. A jazz band is whining; feet are shuffling; waiters are hurrying with trays full of drinks, and now and then a speck of food.
The Tacoma (Washington) Times, February 8, 1917, page 3.
It seems, then, that “jazz” was a Western slang word, meaning, more or less, pep, vim and vigor, that Bert Kelly applied to his music and his band, after moving to Chicago in 1915. But with all that “jazz” going on in Chicago, and later New York, where does “jasbo” fit in the equation?
Jasbo, Hokum and Gravy
In August, 1916, the Tulsa Daily World, the same newspaper that had mentioned the “Jasbo Rag” in 1913, advertised the “first American appearance” of the Kennington Sisters (it may also have been their last appearance – I could not find any more information about them):
$1,000 Extra Attraction
First American Appearance
Carrying Their Own 5-Piece “Jasbo” Orchestra
“Wonderful Musical Novelty.”
Cyclonic Dancers Special Scenery
Tulsa Daily World, August 31, 1916, Morning Edition, Page 10.
So, the “Jasbo Rag” (1913) and a 5-piece “Jasbo” Orchestra (1916) appeared in Tulsa, Oklahoma long before “jazz” became a household musical term after February or 1917. What is “jasbo” – and is there a connection to “jazz”?
The earliest example of “jasbo” that I could find in print is from Virginia in July of 1912, just a few short months after the first appearance of “jazz” in California. But, whereas the early Western slang use of “jazz” meant, more or less, vim and vigor, this earliest use of “jasbo” relates to a musical vaudeville act; “two young women who . . . are clever dancers and gifted singers” who provided “variety entertainment of daintiness and charm.”[xii]
Original Jasbo Twins
The Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), Sporting Section, page 4.
Other early uses of “jasbo” include the name of a comic-strip character (1912), and the “Jasbo Rag,” performed by the Tulsa Band in 1913.
El Paso Herald, Sport and Society Section, October 25, 1912, page 10.
In 1913, Walter J. Kingsley (who, three years later, would write the piece suggesting a connection between “jazz” and “jasbo,” and who, four years later, would write the article about the first use of the word “jazz” in Chicago in 1915), explained:
A highly specialized slang is spoken here, the vocabulary of vaudeville being tersely expressive. A hit is always a “riot,” while a fiasco is a “flop.” To be jeered from the gallery is “getting the bird,” but to be applauded vociferously is to “clean up.” A woman who works all by herself is a “single woman.” Two women working together are a “sister act.” An act in which no word is spoken, as in juggling and acrobatic turns, is a “dumb act.” The position of an act on the bill is the “spot.” Vulgar, slap-stick comedy is “jasbo,” “hokum,” or “gravy.”
The Washington Times, November 30, 1913, Sunday Evening Edition, page 19.
An expanded version of the article, celebrating the 30th anniversary of American Vaudeville, noted that although “jasbo” and “hokum” may be vulgar, it may be desirable:
The club department, which provides entertainers for private and special functions, and is kept running at high tension night and day, is in charge of a keen-witted young business woman, Frances Rockefeller King, who can turn from a grand dame, demanding Fritzi Scheff for her musicale, to Alderman Gowanus, insisting upon acts with “jasbo” and “gravy” for a club smoker, and give both patrons what they want off-hand.
The Stage Yearbook 1914, London, “The Stage” Offices, page 68. (no date imprint, but it appears to have been printed at the end of 1913 or beginning of 1914).
Some performers considered “jasbo” to be a sure thing to win over an audience. A vaudeville actor with a trained pig act, who aspired to get into higher-class theaters said:
I want to get into a high brow neighborhood theatre. I find that the act ‘Hiram’ with which I am now identified is what we of the profession call ‘slapstick.’ It reeks of ‘hokum,’ ‘gravy’ and ‘Jasbo,’ which I should explain are terms used by variety folk to designate the more obvious and physical forms of humor sometimes known as ‘sure fire.’
The Sun and New York Press, July 9, 1916, page 6, column 6.
“Jasbo” was also used in the film industry. Movie reviews in Variety in 1915 referred to the silent-film comic staples, the seltzer bottle gag and slipping on a banana peel gag, as “jasbo.”[xiii] Variety described the film, “A Favorite Fool,” as “excellent ‘jasbo’ [that] will help to fill out a mixed picture program anywhere.”[xiv] Variety described “The Worst of Friends” as having a lot of “jasbo”:
In the apartment house there is a woman beauty specialist and the principal “catastrophes” occur there. The “jasbo” includes sitting on hot coals, blowing steam through a speaking tube, pouring hot water on feet, Weber eating all the family food and smoking Lew’s pipe, stepping in pails of water, everybody falling into a plunge (showing a bunch of girls in one-piece bathing suits).
Variety Film Reviews, Volume 1, 1907-1920 (Variety, January 7, 1916).
In Rock Island, Illinois, in 1914, “Jasbo” was used as the name of a character in a comic strip,[xv] the name of a local bowling team,[xvi] and was mentioned as being the nickname of a film actor’s valet.[xvii]
In Arizona, in 1914 and early 1915, “Jasbo” and “Jazbo” were used as the name of a gambler collecting money from a crooked baseball player, and in a review of a singer’s performance, as a word describing a wild party:
After the game, a jubilant Jazbo in brilliant haberdashery pressed a grateful wad of coin in Jones’ hand way down back of the gas works.
Arizon Republican, May 20, 1914, page 2, column2;
Rena Vivienne took on some high brown “Springtime” and showed more class than a wise guy at jasbo shindig. On the square, pal, that dame’s pipes win in a walk.
Arizona Republican, March 30, 1915, page 2.
In Chicago, Illinois, in 1915 (the same year in which “jazz” became a musical term in Chicago), the F. J. Forster Music Publisher published sheet music for Arthur S. Shaw’s foxtrot, “Jazbo.”[xviii]
“Jazbo” was also used as the name of a number of characters in stage and film productions during the years before Jazz became a household word after its success in New York City.
During and after 1917, the word “jasbo” continued in use. A United States Army pilot in World War named his airplane, the “Jazbo”; the word was used in numerous song titles, for example, Jazbo Johnson’s Hokum Band and the Jazz Bo Blues. In the early 1920s, there was a brief fad for “jazz bow-ties.” Sadly, I could not find a description, drawing or photograph of one.
In 1919, an American ragtime pianist, Ross Sobel, explained his understanding of the relationship between “jazz-bo” and “jazz” to a journalist in London. Sobel’s story differs from the jasbo-as-vaudeville-expression explanations; Sobel believed that “jazz-bo” had been an African-American greeting:
Jazzmaster To Maharaja Of Cooch Behar Tells Dance History. London, Eng., April 19. – Introducing the jazz master to the maharaja of Cooch Behar!
He’s from New York. Where else would the jazz master to the maharajah of Cooch Behar come from? His name is Ross Sobel. He’s an American ragtime pianist.
Mr. Sobel, just returned from a long trip to India, informs the English public that the jazz is only about 25 years old, and they need not go so crazy about it being a new thing from America.
“There is nothing new in the jazz.” He tells them. “It has been danced all over America for the last 25 years and is simply a variation of the old time ragtime played by the old negro band consisting of sliding trombones, clarionettes, pianos and trap drums.
“The word jazz,” he continues, in his little bit of musical education, “is just a variation of “jazz-bo,” an American negro greeting. For instance: ‘How are you jazz-bo?’ which really means nothing more than a greeting.
“The music was first introduced into London before the war. It has been well known to members of night clubs for the last six years, and a real jazz band was among the attractions at earl’s court in 1914.
“Since then I have been touring Africa and India, where I was appointed bandmaster to the maharaja of Cooch Behar, who is now importing a real American ragtime band to play in his palace.
“The real jazz music is composed of the beautiful negro melodies from the southern States, but I am afraid it is being sadly murdered by the amateur musicians who cannot impart to it that native charm which is the principal reason for the world wide popularity.”
So now we are to have the royal ragtime and the palace jazz.
El Paso Herald, April 19, 1919, Home Edition, Cable News, Sport and Classified Section, page 1.
If we accept the summary of Sobel’s career, his comments are particularly interesting, because he seems to have been absent from the United States since before 1914. His recollections may not have been, presumably, as affected by current trends in American pop-culture and changing patterns of slang or speech. And, if true, his recollection of “jazz-bo” as an African-American greeting may be consistent with a proposed etymology that suggests that “jazz” and “jazzbo” were derived from French slang of 1830’s New Orleans:
Mutual’s Answer Man came up with what many jazz students have been waiting for: an explanation of the origin of the word jazz. . . .
. . . in pre-Civil War days, Georgia Negro men competed in strutting contests for their choice of cakes, and ladies, in cake supers. The strutting contest became known as the Cake Walk, and the winner was dubbed Mr. Jazzbo.
Further research traced the word to New Orleans during the 1830s, when chasse beaux was a popular French expression denoting a dandy, or a hip Gallic Don Juan.
Merriam and Garner, page 380 (citing Down Beat 25:10, May 29, 1958).
If chasse beaux were demonstrated to have actually used as French slang meaning, in modern parlance, essentially, “dude,” chasse beaux, and later “jasbo,” may well have been an African-American greeting, akin to the modern greeting, “Dude!”
If chasse beaux were demonstrated to have been French slang used to refer to a dandy, or fancy-pants, it might be believable that the word could have been adopted by minstrel shows and vaudeville as a term meaning, to spice up an act. If a “dandy” is known by having fancy clothes – a stale act might well have been dressed up with “jasbo” to give it more pep.
A French-speaking researcher with an interest in 1830s New Orleans slang might be able to shed more light on the matter. It is at least an interesting connection that merits consideration.
Lt. J. Tim Brymn and the Black Devil Band
In 1919, two different newspapers, in two different towns, used variations of the word Jazzbo in reviews of Lieutenant J. Tim Brymn and The Black Devil Band, who had just returned from Europe where they had served as part of the 350th Field Artillery Regiment, part of the 92nd Infantry Division – the so-called, Buffalo Soldiers. Both of these articles were published before the questionable folk-etymology crediting “Jasbo Brown” first appeared in June, 1919:
The Black Devil Band, seventy strong, which will appear at the Orpheum to-morrow, matinee and night, were a part of the 350th Field Artillery Regiment, recently returned from overseas. This highly trained military band is under the expert leadership of Lieutenant J. Tim Brymn, a colored composer of note whose songs have been sung all over America. . . . Classical music may be all right for the high brows, they argue, but if you really want to start the toes to tapping, give ‘em a little jazz, bo. [(Emphasis added)] Lieutenant Brymn does not omit the classics from his programs, however, and he is especially partial to Dvorak’s “New World Symphony,” in which that great composer has inserted bits of negro folk songs, some of which contain a suggestion of jazz. Other standard compositions on the program of the Black Devil Band are the William Tell overture, the Faust Fantasie, and numbers from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite. One of the favorite selections which the 350th Field Artillery Band enjoyed rehearsing while in the trenches before Metz, were excerpts from Wagner’s Lohengrin. Probably the lieutenant bandmaster knew that Wagner was exiled by the Germans long before his death. Not only is Lieutenant J. Tim Brymn an accomplished composer and a magnetic conductor, but he is a ‘Cello soloist of fame, and a pianist of unusual attainments. . . .
Jazz will reign supreme at the Orpheum to-morrow when the celebrated colored aggregation of musical talent called the Black Devil Band comes to this city. Just at present the world seems to be jazz mad, and Lieutenant J. Tim Brymn will introduce some new wrinkles in syncopation which created a veritable sensation overseas. The Black Devil Band is a portion of the 350th Field Artillery Regiment, which saw active service in the trenches before Metz. Just as the armistice was signed, they were preparing for the first onslaught on this German stronghold. Upon the return to the United States of the regiment, the band secured its discharge, and opened its season at the huge Academy of Music in Philadelphia last week. They filled the building to its capacity, and aroused quiet old Philly to an enthusiasm such as it seldom shows for any kind of an entertainment.
Harrisburg Telegraph, April 8, 1919, page 14.
Lieutenant Tim Trymn [(sic)] and his fifty black devils are just about the most stunning band we ever looked at or listened to. They all appeared in military uniforms, for they are part of the 350th Field Artillery recently returned from overseas.
Jazz-Bo, [(emphasis added)] he of the expressive feet, conducted the jazz, and he dances while he plays, in direct refutation of the old adage about not being able to do two things at once and do them well.
New York Tribune, May 25, 1919, section 4, page 9, column 7.
Interestingly, the band may have included many of the “jaz band” musicians from the Eighth Illinois Infantry who marched into San Antonio in June of 1916,[xix] as reported in the Broad Ax, and cited above.
Taken together, the two articles suggest that either Lt. Brymn, or one of the band, used the phrase, “Jazz-bo” or “jazz, bo” during the show; which would explain why the term appears in both articles, written in two distant cities. One article treats the phrase as the name, or title, of the conductor – and the other article treats the phrase almost like the traditional vaudeville term. In either case, the use here shows that “jasbo” was at least used in relation to “jazz” music two years after the jazz craze hit New York City. Tim Brymn had been active in the music business since at least 1901.[xx] Perhaps his use of the phrase “jazz-bo” reflects pre-1917 use of the phrase, and might be an indication that “jazz” could have been derived from “jasbo.”
Conclusion – Is Jasbo Jazz? – or Just Hokum and Gravy?
There is fairly believable evidence that Bert Kelly could have been the first person to use “jazz” to describe music, beginning in about mid-1915. He travelled to Chicago from the West Coast, where the word, “jazz” was used at least as early as 1912, and continuing into late 1916, to mean, more or less, “pep” or “vim and vigor.” He is also known to have been associated with the Art Hickman, who later became a jazz musician and who was present at the San Francisco Seals’ spring training camp in 1913, along with “Scoop” Gleeson and “Spike” Slattery, sports reporters known to have been early users of the word “jazz” in its West Coast slang sense.
The West Coast sense of “jazz” is known to have been used on from at least 1912, through the end of 1916, just before “jazz,” in its musical sense, became a household word. It was used in Los Angeles (1912), San Francisco (1913), Arizona (1916), Oregon (1916, February, 1917). The Western slang sense of “jazz” is not inconsistent with the purported, traditional vaudeville term, “jasbo” (first attested in 1912), used to indicate adding something to an act to make it more appealing – in other words, to pep it up.
Early use of the word, “jasbo,” in musical and entertainment contexts, popped up in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1913, 1916), El Paso, Texas (1912), Phoenix, Arizona (1914, 1915), and Tacoma, Washington (1915)[xxi]; a string of Western Cities which, if you draw an curved-line through them, define an arc that runs along California, where the word “jazz” first appears. “Jasbo,” however, was not confined to the West. It first appeared in Virginia (1912); its use and meaning in vaudeville was described in separate reports about vaudeville practices in 1913 and 1916; and it was used as the name of characters on stage, in films, and the comics from 1912 through 1916. It was used in the title of musical acts and songs as early as 1912, and continuing after 1917, and into the 1920s.
Several observers, who were involved in vaudeville or musical entertainment, noted a relationship between “jasbo” and “jazz,” within months of the start of the “jazz craze” in early 1917.
It seems plausible that “jasbo” and “jazz” share a common origin. Perhaps the West Coast sense of “jazz,” as “pep,” was adapted from the vaudeville word “jasbo,” meaning a gimmick used to pep up an act. Art Hickman, one of the people who was present when “jazz” was first learned by Gleeson and published by Slattery, had spent a career in and around vaudeville theaters, and his mother was a vaudeville performer. Although I have not found any pre-1917 source that reflects John Philips Sousa’s and Walter J. Kingsley’s reports that “jazz it up” or “jaz her up” were also used in vaudeville, their comments, made shortly after the “jazz craze” hit, are believable, if not proven.
If, as others speculate, “jazz” was derived from the word, “jasm,” first attested in 1860, or a purported Creole patois word, “jass,” meaning “strenuous activity,” it is also possible that jasbo shared the same origins. If it can be shown that chasse beaux was actually a French slang term from early-19th Century New Orleans, it seems plausible that “jasbo” could have been derived from that word. It may also be the case that unrelated, similar words reinforced one another in creating the word “jazz” or “jasbo” or both.
Perhaps “jasbo” and “jazz” developed independently. Perhaps the “Jasbo Rag” (1913) is merely a song about vaudeville performers - and not indicative of “Jasbo” as a musical term. Perhaps “Jasbo” was associated with “Jazz” after 1915 only because of the similarity of the sound of the words.
In all likelihood, we may never know the precise confluence of factors that created the word “jazz,” but “jasbo” is certainly a good candidate.
. . . . . or maybe all of this is just hokum and gravy?
[i] Jazz-The Word, Alan P. Merriam and Fradley H. Garner, Ethnomusicology, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Sep., 1968), pp. 373-396, University of Illinois Press.
[iii] Columbia Records catalogue, June, 1917. A copyright notice for Ephraham’s Jazbo Band is dated December 9, 1916 (Ephraham’s Jazbo Band; words and music by Jack Smith . . . © 1 c. Dec. 9, 1916).
[iv] Gunboat Smith eventually won his match against Sam Langford, on points, in Boston, not New York, on November 17, 1917.
[vi] The San Francisco Call, March 12, 1913, page 8, column 1. Big Society Feed. Doctor Parramore and Rudolph Litchenberg, proprietors of the springs, assisted by Art Hickman as master of ceremonies, entertained Carl Ewing, Frank Ish, Del Howard and the war correspondents at a big dinner this evening. It was a real social event of the training season and many a toast was drunk to the 1913 Seals and the men behind the team.
[x] The Sun (New York), February 9, 1919, section 6 (special feature magazine), page 6.
[xi] Canadian Patent Office Record, volume 44, part 2, 1916 (That Funny Jas Band from Dixieland. Words by Gus Kahn. Music by Henry I. Marshall. Jerome H. Remick & Company, New York, N. Y., U.S.A., 8th November, 1916).
[xii] Washington (DC) Times, January 5, 1913.
[xiii] Variety Film Reviews, Volume 1, 1907-1920, New York, Garland Pub., 1983 (reviews of “My Valet,” Variety, October 1, 1915, and “”Fatty and Broadway Stars,” Variety, December 10, 1915).
[xiv] Variety Film Reviews, Volume 1 (Variety, October 8, 1915).
[xv] Rock Island (Illinois) Argus, February 25, 1914, page 13.
[xvi] Rock Island (Illinois) Argus, October 7, 1914, Home Edition, page 10 (the “Jasbos” were in third place in the bowling league standings).
[xvii] Rock Island (Illinois), Argus, March 28, 1914, Home Edition, page 9, column 2 (“When Dave [Thompson] is not playing in pictures “Jasbo” acts as a personal bodyguard.”).
[xviii] The date on the published sheet music is 1915; the piece is listed as having been registered with the United States Copyright Office on January 7, 1916.
[xix] The 92nd Infantry Division was reportedly organized in October 1917 at Camp Funston, Kansas. Wikipedia. When the Eighth Illinois Infantry marched into camp in San Antonio, Texas, the Broad Ax reported that, “General Funston would not confirm the report.” The Broad Ax (Salt Lake City), page 4, column 2. General Funston died in San Antonio in January of 1917, and the training camp near Fort Riley, Kansas, was renamed in his honor. Wikipedia. It seems likely that elements of the Eighth Illinois Infantry, who reported for training in mid-July, 1916, may have been subsumed into the 92nd Infantry Division when Fort Funston was organized in 1917.
[xx] The earliest copyright notice I found was from 1900; My starlight babe, my queen. Words by W. S. Estren; music by James T. Brymn . . . Dec. 7, 1900.
[xxi] The Tacoma Times, August 2, 1915, page 2, column 2 (Theodore’s is the life for excitement. His Jasbos and molly coddles are as well known as Dad Flynn’s Hogs.).