How baseball gave us the word ‘jazz’

From Ben Zimmer at the Boston Globe on March 25, 2012:

One hundred years ago, a hard-throwing but erratic minor league pitcher named Ben Henderson was getting ready for his opening day start for the Portland Beavers against the Los Angeles Angels. Henderson had pitched well for the Beavers the previous year, but he began the 1912 season with a well-earned reputation as an unreliable drunk.

Henderson gave a Los Angeles Times reporter a preview of what he had planned for the game. “I got a new curve this year,” he explained, “and I’m goin’ to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.” The headline for the item, from April 2, 1912, was simply “Ben’s Jazz Curve.”

Henderson lost that game, and he was soon out of baseball entirely. But we may owe him a debt of gratitude for his wobbly “jazz ball.” In a relatively recent surprise for etymologists, the latest historical research has located his quote as the first known use of the word “jazz”–which in a few short years would bounce from West Coast ball fields to the nightclubs of Chicago and beyond. Ultimately, it would become the name for a distinctly American music–and a term so monumental in its impact that the American Dialect Society in 2000 named it the Word of the Century.

While the exuberant, syncopated performance style we now recognize as jazz was born in New Orleans, the music preceded its memorable name. For New Orleans musicians of the time, what they played in their collective improvisations was simply a “hot” variety of “ragtime,” though that label was growing increasingly outdated.


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Originally published: March 26, 2012. Last Updated: March 26, 2012.