Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Word Jazz

I have always had a fascination with jazz. I've spent over thirty years researching it and an equal amount of time hosting jazz radio shows and writing about it. Jazz music has gone from the streets of New Orleans to everywhere in the world. In the thirties jazz was king, it was the most popular music in America. Jazz has come a long way into the 21st century but what do we really know about the word jazz? Where did it come from? There are many theories and stories, here's what I have found out about the word jazz.

Early jazz men said "to jazz" meant to fornicate, or, as they put it, "jazzing meant effing" (fucking). A "jazzbow" or "jazzbo" was a lover of the ladies. A "jazz baby" was an easy woman. According to some sources, the word Jazz was also underworld jargon found in Chaucer and Shakespeare. Jazz had many names: jabo, jaba, jazpation, jazynco, jazorient, jazanola. Also jazanata, jazarella, jazanjaz, jazology, jazette, jazzola, jazitis and jazioso.

Songwriter and musician Clarence Williams says that he was the first to use the word "jazz" in a song. Williams said, "On both Brown Skin, Who You For? and Mama's Baby Boy, I used the words, jazz song, on the sheet music. I don't exactly remember where the words came from, but I remember I heard a woman say it to me when we were playin' some music. `Oh, jazz me, baby,' she said."

According to Arnold Loyacano, the word jazz had different origins. Loyacano was in Tom Brown's band, which in 1915 was the first white band to ever go to Chicago and play jazz. They were playing in a hotel which previously had a string quartet for entertainment. Brown's band had been used to playing on the back of a wagon, which meant that they had to play loud and were really incapable of playing soft. The crowd's reaction was to hold their ears and yell, "Too loud!" Loyacano says that was when people started calling his music "jazz." The way Northern people figured it out, our music was loud, clangy, boisterous, like you'd say, "Where did you get that jazzy suit?" meaning loud or fancy. Some people called it "jass." Later when the name struck, it was spelled with a "z,"jazz."

The latest research on the word "jazz" points to early use of the term in baseball. According to University of Missouri-Rolla Professor Gerald Cohen' author of a three-volume "Dictionary of 1913 Baseball and Other Lingo," jazz was used in baseball meaning "vim," "vigor" and "fighting spirit" before it acquired its musical meaning. It was introduced by San Francisco Bulletin sports writer 'Scoop' Gleeson as a term to describe players on the San Francisco Seals team.

So whether it is jass, jazz or whatever, we know and love it as great music whether here in New Orleans or around the world.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Let's All Honky Tonk Down To The Honky-Tonk

A honky-tonk can be many things, spelled many ways and shortened into one word. When you are referring to a bar with live music in the Southern and Southwestern United States it is also called a honkatonk, honkey-tonk, or tonk. The earliest use of the word (spelled "honkatonk") was an article published in 1900 by the New York Sun and widely reprinted in other newspapers. It was said that the term came from the honking of geese, which led an unsuspecting group of cowboys to the geese instead of a variety show they expected. The "tonk"part is said to have come from the large upright pianos popular in Tin Pan Alley songwriting emporiums made by William Tonk & Bros.

Another more plausible explanation for honky was that it was a term for white people, derived from bohunk and hunky. In the early 1900s, these were derogatory terms for northern Europeans from Poland and Hungary. Robert Hendrickson, author of the Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, wrote that Black workers in Chicago meatpacking plants picked up the term from white workers and began applying it indiscriminately to all Caucasians.

It seems likely that a honky-tonk was an urban equivalent of the country jook joint, a lower-class bar catering mainly to men.  A lyric from one of the pieces of sheet music above, the 1916 hit song "Down in Honky Tonk Town"explains "It's underneath the ground, where all the fun is found." Both sheet music covers show a raucous dance scene.

Over time, the music that was being played in these places became synonymous with the term for the establishments, though the music changed over time just as the clientele did and so we end up with at least two different styles of music with similar origins.

Musically honky tonks were first piano pieces: Jelly Roll Morton's 1938 record "Honky Tonk Music" and Meade Lux Lewis's big hit "Honky Tonk Train Blues" are two good examples. In the fifties it turns up again as a  twelve-bar blues instrumental "Honky Tonk" by the Bill Doggett Combo that became an early rock and roll hit. Fats Domino was often referred to as a honky tonk piano man so its place in New Orleans musical history is secured. Other honky-tonk songs recorded by New Orleans musicians include Louis Armstrong, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Peter Bocage, Panorama Jazz Band, Tuts Washington, Dave Bartholomew, Storyville Stompers, Nappy Lamare, the Eureka Brass Band and Nicholas Payton.

Another type of music using this term is a country music style which arose from the Thirties "Western Swing" movement pioneered by Bob Wills. His radio and recordings became the standard for modern country and western in the Fifties and beyond. A good example is Hank Williams 1951 hit "Honky Tonk Blues," Louisianian Harry Choates' "Honky-Tonking Days" and Charlie Feather's "Honky Tonk Man."

More modern music fans would also want to point to "Honky Tonk Women," a 1969 hit song by The Rolling Stones. In this song a "honky tonk woman" refers to a dancing girl in a western bar who may work as a prostitute. Wrestling fans would want Roy Wayne Farris mentioned as his ring name was The Honky Tonk Man.

If you think that Honky-tonks are dead you couldn't be further from the truth; recent research has turned up two present day honky-tonks, one near Baton Rouge and one in the middle of Florida. There are probably a lot more and if someone who reads this runs a nice magazine, I'd be glad to go and do some field research and come back with a much bigger piece of the story. Here in New Orleans the original "Down In Honky Tonk Town," has been adopted and adapted to traditional New Orleans jazz so in that way the original song can still be heard though time seems ripe for an updated honk tonk to appear as this term continues into the 21st Century.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Richest Man I Ever Met

I've met some interesting well-known people in my life. I shared drinks with noted baseball manager Leo Durocher. Durocher was a man of many quotes including "nice guys finish last" and "show me a good loser and I'll show you an idiot." Durocher was at home in a bar and that's where I met him. I also met writer Ralph Ellison, who lit up when I told him I had read "Invisible Man." I was working as a night manager in a hotel and was still on shift when he checked out in the morning and he introduced me to his wife as "the young man who had read my book." One of the more interesting persons I had a chance to have dinner with not once but twice was John Kluge. When I met John Kluge in the late eighties he was listed as one of the richest people in the United States. Yep, I had pot luck dinner with a billionaire and I can't remember what I made.

John Kluge passed last week and the memory of those two dinners came back to me and seemed worthy of sharing with a larger audience. John Kluge had a huge estate in Albemarle County in Virginia and was two weeks shy of his birthday. He was 95. Kluge was born in Germany and came to America via Ellis Island in 1922 at the age of 8. He went to Columbia University. Kluge said he learned his business acumen working for frugal businessmen after college. “These guys were so tight that they didn't have buffaloes on their nickels, they rubbed them so hard,” Kluge recalled. “And they wouldn't have a dime in their pocket, because that's too much money to carry around.” John Kluge made his fortune through his purchase of radio and television stations. In the 1950s, Kluge poured $6 million into the Metropolitan Broadcasting Corp. The company, built on the remnants of the old DuMont Television Network, owned television outlets in New York and Washington, D.C. He built the company on syndication rights from older shows. I used to watch his channel 5 WNEW out of New York City all the time when I was growing up.

Both dinners at John Kluge's house were very mellow affairs; there must have been about ten or twelve people sitting at the table and we all got a chance to listen to the man tell his stories and ask him questions. I had decided that I was going to try and lay what I thought would be a good question on him. As a radio show host I had recently come across an LP of African Pygmies playing puddles. This may not sound like much but to hear the ker-plunks in various pitches as the Pygmies literally dance in the water was an amazing sound. So I asked the richest man I ever knew if he had ever heard Pygmies playing puddles and he said yes! It was years latter that I found out one of his main interests was in aboriginal art and culture so of, course he had heard and seen the Pygmies do their thing. In the course of conversation when a city was mentioned he would say "oh yes, we have a house there." The house was not lavishly decorated but before dinner when I was looking at the art I realized much of what I was seeing could have been in a museum. He didn't drink cognac, a simple vodka on the rocks was his choice. I think the thing that impressed me most was that he had made his money by hard work and that made him a man of the people, someone with whom anyone would have something in common.

So here's to you John Kluge, I'll never forget you.