Nearly everyone agrees that jazz came from the African-American culture, most probably around New Orleans at the end of the 19th century. But did you know there’s also a connection to baseball — and Sonoma County — in the earliest reportage on jazz?

It’s universally recognized that jazz is America’s defining contribution to world music. In fact, even the US Congress noted this — in 1987, the 100th Congress passed a resolution designating jazz as “a rare and valuable national American treasure.” You can read the whole thing here.

Congo SquareFirst let’s get to the origins of jazz, as deriving from African rhythmic traditions involuntarily transplanted to the New World. In New Orleans, the black slave class had their musical instruments taken away from them by their masters, but they could still gather in what became known as Congo Square to beat out their rhythms and socialize.

As slavery was abolished, they returned to instrumental music, among other places in the somber graveyard procession at funerals. But it was the so-called “second line,” the return from the graveyard, that gave birth to jazz music. Here the musicians cut loose, and in all probability began to improvise on the hymns and popular songs of the day, creating a fun, festive and energetic parade to show that even after death the celebration of life could continue.

It was this unique combination of forces that could only happen in America — the celebration of freedom in the midst of slavery, and of life even in death — that gave birth to music that has since spread all around the world, but remains distinctly American: Jazz.

Cap AnsonBut baseball? Sonoma? However the music itself began, the question remains of where the word “Jazz” came from. The earliest printed usage of the word was. ironically, in the sports pages, when in 1912 a pitcher described his new wobbling curve as a “jazz ball.”

Just a year later a sportswriter from the San Francisco Bulletin, covering the Pacific Leage team the Seals, refered to “the jazz” as team enthusiasm or spark. He was reporting from Boyes Hot Springs, just outside the town of Sonoma, where the Seals had their training camp. (Don’t believe it? Trust Wikipedia!)

— Christian Kallen

Think you know what jazz is? Leave a comment on our page, “What Is Jazz?”