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March 11, 2013

TT: From "jass" to jazz

The word "jazz" first started to appear regularly in print a century ago this month. On Saturday, the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal invited me to commemorate the anniversary. Here's an excerpt.

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funkybutt.jpgFire up the time machine, set the controls for New Orleans in 1907 and make your way to a rickety night spot on Perdido Street that is known to the locals as Funky Butt Hall. Look closely and you might see a child in short pants peering through a crack in the wall and listening to the band inside. The child is Louis Armstrong, and the band, a combo led by a cornet player named Buddy Bolden, is playing a brand-new style of music that sounds like a cross between ragtime and the blues.

Don't call it "jazz," though, because nobody in Funky Butt Hall will know what you're talking about. They call it "ragtime." And don't try to tell them that it will someday be played in concert halls, because if you do, they'll laugh you off the dance floor. Bolden's band played background music for bumping, grinding, drinking and fighting. Nobody in New Orleans thought of it as art, and nobody would think of it that way for years to come. Well into the '60s, there were still plenty of skeptics who continued to question the musical worth of jazz, and one of the reasons for their persistent skepticism was the fact that it had been born in honky tonks with names like Funky Butt Hall.

The word "jazz" didn't appear in print with any frequency until March 1913, exactly a century ago. What's more, it doesn't seem to have had anything to do with music, nor was the word coined in New Orleans....

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Read the whole thing here.

Posted March 11, 2013 12:00 AM

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