The Word Jazz in the Jazz World

In December 1917, U.S. Merchant Marine Truman Blair Cook wrote a diary entry describing his crew’s arrival in Arica, Chile—a small mining town near the country’s northern border. The following is excerpted from Oregon Historical Quarterly, where Cook's diaries were published in 1976:

Dec. 28. Arrived at Arica [in northern Chile] and dropped anchor at 11 a.m. Seems good to see signs of people. . . . Running from the beach is a pier of concrete and steel with locomotive cranes that lift the cargos from the lighters onto the flatcars. When anyone from the ship goes ashore they are rowed in by boatmen for a peso . . . each way. If after six up to ten p.m. he soaks you from 3 to 10 pesos if he thinks he can get away with it. Arica is the port for the railroad that runs back into Bolivia and Bolivia's outlet for her rich mines.

The town is of about 2,000 population, mostly Chileans, Spanish and Indians. Only a few Americans and few more English can be found, but all speak Spanish. . . . The whole town reeks of the smell that is common to all of the towns in this country. Everything is very high and doubly so to an American, as they see you coming, so to speak.

The town is very proud of its jazz band and its bright uniforms. It plays every other evening and Sunday morning and evening. I found it hard to talk to the people at first but now I know a few Spanish words and get along in a way. I have only been ashore four times as I always come back with enough fleas to keep me in misery for a week. The town is full of them and the dogs' backs are brown with them. The natives seem to be entirely ignorant of them. The only trees to be seen are the few in the plaza and a few more in the streets. The plaza is a jumble of trees, flowers, historic cannon, and statues of the liberation of the country.

This entry is a rather typical seaman’s description of a maritime voyage. What makes it remarkable, however—and also vexing—is that it refers to the town’s “jazz band,” and thus is the earliest use of the word that I have found referring to musical activity in Chile. It is clear that jazz activity was taking place in the country long before North American recording companies set up studios in Santiago in 1930according to musicologist Álvaro Menanteau, the first jazz recordings by Chilean musicians were recorded in Buenos Aires in 1926 in an effort to cater to Chilean taste in popular music (2003:27).

What makes this reference to the Arica town jazz band vexing, for jazz scholars at least, is that the reference alone does little to describe what that jazz activity sounded like. Indeed, 1917 is the same year that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded their jazz sounds in New York; it is possible but highly unlikely that the inhabitants of a remote mining village in the Atacama Desert had access to that record as a musical touchstone. It is also possible that the sounds produced by the Arican “jazz band” reminded Cook of early tours along the North American West Coast by African American musical pioneers such as Jelly Roll Morton.

Original Dixieland Jazz Band's recording "Dixie Jass Band One-Step"

What this encounter between the North American merchant marine and this band of Chilean musicians does show, however, is that the word jazz was traveling rapidly around the world as a way of naming musical activity. And although the term now connotes a relationship to musical genre, it also carries with it a host of other meanings. This point is illustrated perhaps most dramatically by Mark Laver in his 2015 book Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning, which addresses the use of jazz in advertising. (A preview of this book was published here in March.) After enumerating a bizarre and wide-ranging list of products bearing the name “jazz,” Laver concludes,

If jazz can simultaneously be a seasoned potato, a diet cola, an in-ear thermometer, and a super yacht, if it can cost anywhere from US$1 to £300 million, its core meaning is exceptionally elusive, if it has any singular core meaning at all. (2015:2)

The word’s association with music has never been exclusive, either. First printed in the Los Angeles Times in reference to a minor league pitcher’s curveball in 1912, the word only became associated with musical practice in New Orleans a few years later. As Lewis Porter notes in the link above, before the mid-1910s, New Orleans musicians referred to what they did as “ragtime.” Cook, a West Coast sailor who had spent time in California before 1917, seems to have been familiar with the word’s seedier connotations—this is evident from the other associations in the text to dirt, stench, and fleas.

Furthermore, the word has undergone subtle transformations as it has assimilated into other languages. In Spanish, for example, the spelling is maintained but the pronunciation is changed depending on local dialect—Chileans pronounce it “yass,” for example, while Argentines call it “shass.” In Russian, meanwhile, the pronunciation is similar but it is transliterated into the Cyrillic alphabet as “джаз." The dominance of the name, it bears noting, is deeply connected to the United States’ role as a hegemonic power throughout Latin America in the wake of World War I. In Jazz Sells, Laver draws on an argument from Ernesto Laclau to drive this point home:

[If] the unity of the object is the retroactive effect of naming itself, then naming is not just the pure nominalistic game of attributing an empty name to a preconstructed subject. It is the discursive construction of the object itself. . . . The essentially performative character of naming is the precondition for all hegemony and politics. (Quoted in Laver, 2015: 231)

In other words, the music being played by the uniformed Aricans only became “jazz” upon the arrival of an Oregonian merchant marine. Thus, it was Cook—neither Arican nor African-American musicians—who called the group a jazz band.

This awkward fit between the word and the music has never gone away, as Amiri Baraka famously noted in his influential Down Beat essay “Jazz and the White Critic.” Nicholas Payton put it most provocatively when he wrote at his blog in 2011,

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t play Jazz. I play Postmodern New Orleans music. . . . I am a part of a lineage. I am a part of a blood line. My ancestors didn’t play Jazz, they played Traditional, Modern and Avant-garde New Orleans Music. I don’t play Jazz. I don’t let others define who I am. . . . The man who lets others define him is a dead man. With all due respect to the masters, they were victims of a colonialist mentality.

In his 2005 essay “Core and Boundaries,” jazz historian Scott DeVeaux delves more deeply into the ways in which this core meaning is maintained, both the word and the music. He demonstrates how jazz history has been written by drawing boundaries, leaving out many musical practices along the way. Those boundaries have defined a set of dichotomies, with the core jazz meaning lying on one side and not the other: art, not commerce; black, not white; male, not female; and North American, not European, African, or of any other geographical provenance—certainly not Arican! Writing in a similar vein, John Szwed designates the musical practices that fall outside of these boundaries with scare quotes—as “jazz”—in his book Jazz 101 (2000). This has been done, as Payton notes, by mostly white North American critics and historians without separating the word from the music.

But DeVeaux also argues that contemporary listeners—not to mention a staggering diversity of musical practices drawing on jazz histories—lie mostly outside of those boundaries, and in order to reach them, we must cross them and engage with those peripheries. My dissertation fieldwork, which has recently taken me to Chile to focus on jazz practice at the Santiago club Thelonious, concerns itself deeply with this interplay between inside and outside—core, boundary, and periphery—especially in terms of geography and nationality, but also race, class, and gender. The practices of musical performance and listening that take place on a given night in Santiago—or, for that matter, Arica—may fall well outside of these boundaries, in terms of race and geography, while falling squarely within them in terms of class, gender, and musical taste.

I plan visit to Arica in early 2016 to follow the trail started perhaps unwittingly by Cook—a fellow white Oregonian—nearly a century ago. As I learn more about the surprising local histories that have played out alongside both this word and the sounds with which it has been associated, I am drawn more closely to the music that those Arican bandsmen were making at the time they encountered Cook’s jazz-tinged ears. It has been suggested by Payton and others that the word be retired, replaced by Black American Music, or #BAM. But what happens when we add Brown Arican Music to the historical mix? Whether we like it or not, these sounds have been connected through the uses of the word "jazz" by white North Americans to describe music made by nonwhite others. And as I hope to have shown, listening for these global jazz connections can offer deep surprises—about both the word and the music it has named.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. "Jazz and the White Critic." Down Beat. August 15, 1963.

Cook, Truman B. 1976. “Merchant Marine 1917-1918.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 77(2):100-129.

DeVeaux, Scott. 2005. “Core and Boundaries.” Jazz Research Journal 2(1):15–30.

Laver, Mark. 2015. Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning. New York, NY ; Abingdon: Routledge.

Menanteau, Alvaro. 2003. Historia del Jazz en Chile. Santiago: Ocho Libros Editores.

Payton, Nicholas. 2011. "On Why Jazz Isn't Cool Anymore." Nicholas Payton Blog. https://nicholaspayton.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/on-why-jazz-isnt-cool-anymore/.

Porter, Lewis. 2011. "Origins of the Word Jazz." WBGO.org Blog. http://www.wbgo.org/blog/origins-word-jazz.

Szwed, John. 2000. Jazz 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Jazz. New York: Hachette Books.


Alex W. Rodriguez is a writer, improviser, trombonist and PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at UCLA. He founded the Sounding Board subsection "Space is the Place" in 2013 and served as Editor in Chief for Ethnomusicology Review in 2014. Alex studied trombone performance Amherst College, and completed a Master of Arts degree in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers University, where he wrote his thesis on early jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden and studied trombone with Conrad Herwig. His current research focuses on jazz clubs around the world and the creative improvised music communities that surround them, with case studies in California, Chile, and Siberia. He is currently conducting fieldwork at the Santiago jazz club Thelonious, Lugar de Jazz. Alex also contributes jazz coverage to NPR Music and maintains a blog, Lubricity. He also co-founded the UCLA Omni-Musicality Group, and has served as the Brass Instructor and Curriculum Director for the Santa Monica Youth Orchestra and PS1 Elementary School.

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