Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Wind-Jammers, Jazz Jammers, and Jam Sessions - an Improvised History and Etymology of Jam

Virginia City is going to have a new brass band.  Its leader’s name is Ripingham.  It strikes us that the boss of a squad of wind-jammers had better been named Lungbuster.  But what’s in a name?

Carson Daily Appeal (Nevada), November 12, 1874, page 3.

What’s in a name indeed!  What’s in a word?  Might this obscure notice about a band of “wind-jammers” that the Cartwright Clan could have listened to on a weekend away from the Ponderosa, hold a clue to the origins of the words, “to jam” and “jam session,” that first emerged sixty years later during the jazz-era? 


The expression, “wind-jammer,” in reference to wind-instrument musicians, has been in continuous use since at least 1850, for minstrel show bands, circus bands, navy bands and other bands.  To play a wind instrument is to jam wind into your horn.  Today, “Windjammer” is still used in the name of the Coast Guard Academy’s drum and bugle corps, an historical society devoted to circus music, a marching band, and several jazz bands; although some of those organizations may not be aware of the early history of the word.

Great Falls Daily Tribune (Montana), May 8, 1919, page 14.

During the early jazz years, some performers referred to themselves as, “Jazz Jammers” (see pic, above).   By 1929, the expression, “jam,” referring to an improvised passage of music or “break,” was in use among jazz musicians.  Where “wind jammers” blew their horns; jazz musicians improvised while blowing their horns.  It may have been a short step from “Jazz Jammer’ to jammer, to “jam.”

The term, “windjammer,” as applied to a sailboat or sailing ship, may be more familiar.  Surprisingly perhaps, the musical sense of “wind-jammer” may actually pre-date the nautical sense.  

Jam and Jam Session

The earliest example of a musical “jam” listed in the Oxford English Dictionary is from the Melody Maker (January 1929):[i]

There are many variations on this rhythm . . .  which make excellent breaks – or ‘jams’ as they now call them when they are taken by the whole band, the word ‘break’ being used only when it is intended to signify that it is played by one instrument or a section moving together or unaccompanied.

If a “wind-jammer” is someone who jams wind into their instrument by blowing, then a ‘break’ in which the whole band blows together, might naturally have become ‘jam,’ from wind-jammer.

The origin of “jam” has otherwise remained a mystery.  A standard speculation is that it could be related to the word, “jam,” as in fruit preserves – something sweet.[ii]  This cannot be ruled out as in influence.  “Jelly-roll,” for example, is also believed to have been a different kind of euphemism for a different kind of sweetness among the same jazz-age crowd.  But to me, the longstanding, continuous use of wind-jammer up to and continuing through the early days of jazz suggests that it would also have been an influence, if not the primary influence, on the new, jazzy meaning of “jam.”

Musical Wind-Jammers

The expression, “wind-jammers,” to refer to wind-instrument musicians, dates to at least 1850.  In some instances, the phrase appears to refer not merely to a wind instrument, but to an unsophisticated performer to jams the wind into the instrument, without nuance or control.  Not surprisingly, perhaps, the word is used primarily with respect to popular entertainments like minstrel shows, circuses and military bands.  The expression appears both in the United States and Britain at about the same time.

In 1850, it was used to refer to musicians performing in front of P. T. Barnum’s Dime Museum in New York City:

The Christys are . . . cramming the Mechanics’ Hall.  Pierce’s Minstrels still fill the little Olympic. Barnum’s five Dutch “wind-jammers” still continue (as for the last nine years) to make the most unearthly sounds for the amusement of the Broadway pedestrians.

The Daily Crescent (New Orleans, Louisiana), August 7, 1850, page 2 (in a report on the entertainment scene in New York City).

An anecdote written in 1853, about a performance for the crew of a British Navy ship in 1815, distinguishes between “wind-jammers” (wind instruments) and “cat-gut scrapers” (string instruments):

“Moosic,” begins a baker’s boy; “moo-sic, moo-sic,” resounds on all sides, accompanied by tunes from cat-calls, stamping of feet, rapping of sticks, shrill whistles from boys, &c, &c., &c.
“Lower deck, there,” bawled out a half-seas-over sailor.  “Lower deck, there,” whilst he shies an orange at the foot-lights.  “Rouse up those rascally, lubberly, wind jammers, and cat-gut scrapers,” (roars of laughter). . . .  The gentlemen of the orchestra now made their appearance, and after scraping a little, and screwing a little, and blowing a little, they struck up the then popular tune of “Darby Kelly” . . . .   

The United Service Magazine (London), Volume 71, March 1853, page 351.

In 1869, a brass band in a Fourth of July parade was a bunch of “wind-jammers”:

At 9 o’clock, a. m., a large force of cavalry fantastics, under the marshalship of Brig. Gen. Henderson . . . preceded by the Osceola Cornet Band, the crack wind-jammers of the country, came marching into, up, down, and through town, in a “gorgeous array,” no two costumes alike, and all striving to be the most fantastically ridiculous – and they all succeeded. . . . a white female “miscegen,” who held a piccaninny in her arms, evidently to illustrate the advanced ideas of some people.

Clearfield Republican (Pennsylvania), July 14, 1869, page 3.

In 1889, the singers and dancers of a travelling minstrel show played a baseball game against the musicians:

Notes From Al. G. Field & Co.’s Minstrels. . . .  Long railroad jumps and daily rehearsals have kept down the baseball fever.  The Song and Dance nine played the Wind Jammers’ nine.  The score stood 9 to 3 in favor of the terpsichorean nine.

New York Clipper, August 24, 1889.

In 1901, the Bemidji, Minnesota band played the best music between Crookston and Duluth:

The Bemidji band is the finest lot of wind jammers on the line between the point where the Crookston harmony hummers get in their work and the concord of sweet sounds made by the Zenith city of the Unsalted seas.[iii]

The Bemidji Pioneer, June 6, 1901, page 2.

The expression was used in circuses, as it had been used by Barnum fifty years earlier:

Circus News.

A notice about another circus band, The Great Wallace Show, made a point of claiming that their musicians were not mere “wind jammers,” but real musicians:

Some Real Band Music. 

Among the many numerous characteristics which have secured popularity for the great Wallace show is its musical department.  Its several bands are not “wind jammers” and creators of noise, but they play strains of popular melody and classical music so as to favor its patrons of the circus with a high-class musical entertainment.

The Falls City Tribune (Falls City, Nebraska), May 27, 1904, page 18.

The name of an historical society dedicated to preserving American circus music, “Windjammers Unlimited, Inc.,” reflects the long association of “windjammer” with circus bands.

Although the word “windjammer” appears to have been in regular use in some circles, it may not have been universally known.  An article about “sailors’ slang” form 1901 defined the word for its readers:

A bandman is a “wind jammer.”

The Manning Times (South Carolina), December 18, 1901, page 4.

In 1913, the expression was used in a music industry trade-magazine:

The Player (New York), March 21, 1913.

An advertisement, placed by a medicine show performer in the musicians’ section of an entertainment trade-magazine in 1914, used the words “jammer” and “jam” without the normally-present “wind,” in what may be an early example of “jam” in the now-familiar sense.  The cryptic nature of the remark, however, makes it difficult to decipher the intent:

Ricton Says, Success to the P. P. A.,
Lynch the Jammers
If you jam, I mean you.  P. S. – 18th wk. out under canvas. 
The King, Baltimore, Ohio.

 New York Clipper, August 22, 1914, page 22.

“Professor” Ricton was a medicine show entrepreneur and performer who placed a number of cryptic advertisements in the New York Clipper.  However, he does not make any more references to the P. P. A., and I have been unable to figure out what it means through other sources.

In 1916, a high school band in Arizona hoped to make John Phillip Sousa’s band look like a bunch of “wind jammers”:

Many of the students who were members of the band and orchestra of last year are still in school, and after a little polishing up, the high school band will make DeSousa’s wind jammers look small.

Arizona Republican (Phoenix), September 22, 1916, page 10.

During the mid-19-teens, “wind-jamming” and sometimes “jamming,” standing alone, was used to refer to loud, unrefined wind-instrument playing:

The band was not very good.  They did mostly loud jamming, fast and furious.

The Musical Messenger (Cincinnati, Ohio), Volume 12, Number 3, March 1916, page 3.

No good tone is possible with a calloused lip.  That is the great trouble with the circus and carnival players . . . .  Hard pressure and hard jamming will ruin any lip, and utterly incapacitate it for fine work.

The Musical Messenger (Cincinnati, Ohio), Volume 13, Number 1, January 1917, pages 5-6.

As long as you play in a careless, slipshod manner you can hardly expect a concert job or a theater job.  All you can expect is a cheap carnival job or small circus, where ballyhoo and jamming is the whole thing.

The Musical Messenger (Cincinnati, Ohio), Volume 13, Number 4, April 1917, page 6.

The trouble with most cornet players is wind jamming . . . .

The Musical Messenger (Cincinnati, Ohio), Volume 13, Number 4, April 1917, page 29.

The connections between and among circus music, loud music, wind-jamming and jazz was not a stretch:

In the cafes and select places they do clamor for jazz, which means that the musician must sacrifice his technique and tone quality to produce discordant sounds . . . .  It is a well known fact that this grotesque style of windjamming originated in the New Orleans underworld . . . .

El Paso Herald (Texas), January 28, 1919, page 6.

An overflow crowd patronized the circus, and from the very entrance, which was through the enclosed porch, to the large circus tent in the ballroom everything presented the atmosphere of a real circus.  Jazz music, ballyhoos giving information, program distributors, and venders were present galore.

Chattanoog News (Tennessee), April 6, 1920, page 6.

It was negroes, in scarlet uniforms, that gave us the circus band, forerunner of all jazz.

Bismark Tribune (North Dakota), December 21, 1921, page 4.

The jazz orchestra seemed more like a circus band than an orchestra.  It consisted of a piano, violin, drum, uke, and two jazz horns.

Catoctin Clarion (Mechanicstown, Maryland), October 12, 1922, page 4.

As musical styles and tastes changed, reflected in the increased popularity of jazz into and throughout the 1920s, the word “jammer,” standing alone, was eventually applied to the new music - and not necessarily with a negative connotation.

“Jazz Jammers”

Several bands from across the United States were referred to as, “Jazz Jammers,” between 1919 and 1924.

In Montana, Larson’s Jazz Band were “Jazz Jammers”:

The Glasgow Courier (Montana), May 9, 1919, page 8.

In Illinois, a black-face jazz band were called “Jazz Jammers”:

Irving Barnett will present a new assortment of sleight-of-hand tricks, Katherine Peterson, “The Original Jazz”, will sing a number of songs, Walter Tenney, “Eddie Kanter Second”, will put on a black face musical skit, Virginia Sale, attired in one of the form-fitting S. A. T. C. uniforms will show the audience what the farmer-soldier boy can do and the Revue a la Mode put on by the “Jazz Jammers”, a ten-piece cork-visaged conglomeration, will help fill out the program.

Daily Illini, November 20, 1919, page 1 .

In 1924, Sheesley’s Famous Georgia Minstrels had a group called the “Jolly Jazz Jammers”:

Other Shows. Sheesley’s Famous Georgia Minstrels . . . . James H. James, band leader; the Jolly Jazz Jammers: Clarence Adams, clarinet and saxophone; William H. Keith, cornet; E. C. Anderson and J. C. Jones, trombones; . . . .

New York Clipper, June 7, 1924, page271. 

The earliest known example of the term “jam,” meaning an improvised break involving a full band, first appeared five years later.  It seems likely that “wind-jammer,” a deeply-entrenched term (at least among music professionals) could have influenced the new jazz-sense of the word “jam.”  “Wind-jammers” playing jazz music may have dropped the wind and just started jamming.  The improvisational and louder nature of the new music may have played a roll in ultimately erasing the wind-blowing sense of wind-jammer; leaving us simply with “jammer” and “jam.”


Nautical Windjammers

Farmer, Slang and Its Analogues, Past and Present, Volume 7, 1904, page 356.

When steam-powered ships and sail-powered ships shared the waves, a “wind-jammer” (or “windjammer”) was an insult heaped on “real” sailors by steamship “sailors”:

It is, as a rule, only those who go abroad for their health who prefer a sailing ship, on account of the great length of the voyage, in allusion to which steam people call sailing ships “wind jammers,” while the sailors retort on steamers by dubbing them “iron tanks” and “old coffins.”  There is no doubt that the picturesqueness of a sea voyage is quite destroyed by a steamer.  There are no, or very few, regular sailors on board; so much of the work is now done by steam.  There are no “chanties” or sailors’ songs, which help the work to go easily.  In a steamer there is no interest in noting the course – they go straight on, and the distance covered does not vary, or only slightly, from day to day.

R. C. Seaton, Six Letters from the Colonies, Hull, England, Wildridge & Co., 1886 (Printed for Private Circulation), page 7. 

. . . I left wind-jammers to go into steam.  Sailing ship men in those days [(1888)] looked on steamship men with a more or less mild contempt (amongst themselves, that is), saying that they were not real sailors, only steamboat men. . . . . I’m not sure that even in those days their contempt wasn’t mixed with a little envy.

Sir Bertram Fox Hayes, Hull Down; Reminiscences of Windjammers, Troops and Travellers, New York, The Macmillan Co., 1925, page 60.

The earliest examples of such usage I could find are both from 1879, although the expression appears to have been already well-established; one example is from an Irish woman sailing from New Zealand to England and the other from an American:

Sailors from the Lakes, who, having spent their summer on the great “unsalted seas,”[iv] were now going down to the Gulf to secure berths on “wind-jammers.”

William Staats, A Tight Squeez; or, The Adventures of a Gentleman, who, on a wager of ten thousand dollars, undertook to go from New York to New Orleans in Three Weeks, Without Money, as a Professional Tramp, Boston, Lee and Shepard, 1879, page 195.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the term appears to have been used with respect to any sail-powered ship or boat, generally, without restriction to ship-type or hull.  At various times, clippers, barques, whalers and other ships; wood-hulled, iron-hulled or both; were called “wind-jammers.”[v]  Today, however, some people use “windjammer” as a term-of-art, referring strictly to a certain type of steel-hulled merchant ship.  An entry on Wikipedia, for example,[vi] asserts that a, “windjammer is a type of large sailing ship, with an iron, or for the most part, steel hull, built to carry cargo in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Windjammers were the grandest of merchant sailing ships, with between three and five large masts and square sails, giving them a characteristic profile.”[vii]  But others still follow a more traditional, open-ended definition; there are numerous recreational, sporting, racing, and excursion groups, clubs and businesses, for example, use “windjammer” with reference to any sailboat.  

It is not known when wind-powered ships were first called, “wind-jammers,” but the first ocean-going steamships date to about the 1820s, and regular, transatlantic steamship service was established by about 1850.  The expression “wind-jammer,” referring to musicians, was in use as early as 1853, but the earliest sailing examples appear more than twenty-five years later.  It is impossible to say whether the musical sense influenced the sailing sense, or the other way around. Either one, I suppose, is possible.


The term, “wind-jammer,” was used among professional musicians throughout the seven decades before “jazz” music, by that name, burst onto the scene in about 1915.  During the mid-1910s, the word “jammer,” standing alone, was used to refer to loud, unrefined playing of wind-instruments.  By the early 1920s, several jazz groups appear melded the word “jazz” with “wind-jammer,” referring to themselves as “Jazz Jammers.”  A few years later, the word “jam,” in the sense of an improvised musical performance, first appears.  If “wind-jammers” jammed air into their instruments, and “jazz jammers,” played jazz on their instruments, then to “jam,” meaning to improvise blowing one’s horn during a “break,” may well have been influenced by the earlier expressions, “wind-jammer” and/or “Jazz-Jammer.” 

[i] The earliest example of “jam,” as a musical verb in the modern sense, dates to 1935.
[ii] See, for example, Jazz meaning "short, free improvised passage performed by the whole band" dates from 1929, and yielded jam session (1933); but this is perhaps from jam (n.1) in sense of "something sweet, something excellent."
[iii] Duluth, the furthest-north American city on the Great Lakes, is still called, “The Zenith city of the Unsalted Seas.”
[iv] The Great Lakes.
[v] See, for example,
[vii] See also, Shalabh Agarwal, Windjammer Sailing Ships: From Past to Present, http://www.marineinsight.com/maritime-history/the-windjammer-sailing-ships-from-past-to-present/, July 22, 2011 (accessed April 5, 2016).

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