The Etymology of "Jazz": A Cautionary Word About Digital Sources

tags: research, primary sources, digital sources

Ken Lawrence founded the Deep South People’s History Project in 1973. Today he studies, collects, and writes about aviation history, air transport, and air mail, which are occasional subjects of his monthly columns in Linn’s Stamp News.




In a footnote to an essay titled “The Oracle of Our Unease” about F. Scott Fitzgerald in the October 8, 2020, New York Review of Books, Sarah Churchwell wrote:


  1. Aptly enough the etymology and evolution of “jazz” are also semantically unstable. Although many claim its earliest print uses are from 1912-1913, and that its first recorded uses did not refer to music, there are at least two earlier references to jazz as music. In 1900 an Alabama paper reported on failed efforts to start “a jazz section” with “jazz palaces” in Glasgow (“Attempts to Jazz Glasgow have failed,” Anniston Star, January 1, 1900), while a 1909 article refers to the “jazz” and “pep” of the banjo (“Banjuke is the Latest,” Piedmont News, July 12, 1909).


Those reports seemed unlikely to me — literally incredible — so I looked them up. I found both among the digitized microfilms that are searchable on the subscription Internet website newspapers.com, but both are misdated.


The 1900 Anniston Star report begins, “London.—United Press—.” This should have given Churchwell or her research assistant pause for two reasons. First, because the original United Press went out of business in 1897 and the United Press syndicate of our lifetimes (UPI today) was founded in 1907. Second, because searches that return wire-service articles invariably record the same article published in dozens of newspapers, not just one.


Although the Star dateline lacked the date, a search for an article about jazz music in Glasgow filed from London returned the same one dated March 1, 1924. Returning to the Star article, I scrolled through pages of the same issue. Somehow pages from a March 1924 issue had been spliced into or misfiled among the microfilmed January 1, 1900, issue.


The 1909 Piedmont News snippet ended “—.Boston Globe.” A search for the same report in the Boston Globe found it in the June 20, 1917, issue. Returning to the News squib, I scrolled back to page 1 of that issue, which was dated July 12, 1917.

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