"What is hip?" and Other Inquiries in Jazz Slang Lexicography
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Notes 57.3 (2001) 574-584

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"What Is Hip?"
And Other Inquiries In Jazz Slang Lexicography

Rick McRae

Jazz musicians depend on intercommunication to achieve and maintain a sense of spontaneity. Musicians encourage each other vocally or through their instruments to attain higher levels of performance. The connection with an audience is also vocal and visceral. Because an original function of jazz was to accompany social dancers, a jazz audience's physical responses signaled the musicians to continue or heighten their level of intensity. Among musicians themselves, the jam session exists as the central agency for communicating in a common musical language, in an atmosphere of collective spontaneity. Parallels between the sense of community in a jam session and an open forum of discussants are clear --a successful session, like group conversation, depends on courtesy, decorum, and mutual respect as well as open-mindedness and willingness to listen.

Thus, the connection between music and language manifests itself in the jazz context. As jazz itself evolved from the experience of African Americans, so did the argot that jazz musicians spoke rise from what is called jive language. H. L. Mencken, in a supplement to his American Language, defined jive language as "an amalgam of Negro-slang from Harlem and the argots of drug addicts and the pettier sort of criminals, with occasional additions from the Broadway gossip columns and the high school campus." 1 The linking of jazz and the underworld is not uncommon. Louis Armstrong recalled his days in the Storyville section of New Orleans, where pimps, gamblers, and prostitutes congregated among musicians playing in the hangouts where they plied their trades. 2 Chicago jazzmen Mezz Mezzrow 3 and Jimmy McPartland 4 have documented their experiences among gangsters and other lowlifes during Prohibition. [End Page 574]

In his preface to the Dictionary of American Slang, Stewart Berg Flexner remarks that the need to use slang terms reflects a need to reject the mainstream, to rebel against the squares, in order to be accepted as an insider. He writes, "We would rather share or accept vices than be excluded from a social group. For this reason, for self-defense, and to create an aura (but not the fact) of modernity and individuality, much of our slang purposely expresses amorality, cynicism, and 'toughness.'" 5 Jazz musicians and their followers saw themselves as outsiders: that is to say, in opposition to the mainstream society at large, to more traditional musicians and listeners, to critics, to authorities, to particular bandleaders, clubowners and union officials, and even to other jazz musicians of a former or a succeeding generation.

Between 1934 and 1970, glossaries of jazz slang terms appeared in print, either as articles, appendixes to autobiographies of prominent jazz musicians, or entire volumes referred to as dictionaries. An examination of some of these glossaries and dictionaries, as well as several specific words, can highlight some possible origins as well as a steady and lively evolution of jazz parlance over time.

In a 1932 article for American Speech, James Hart suggested that jazz slang found its way into the cultural mainstream through incorporation into popular song lyrics, for strictly commercial reasons. 6 He wrote, "The use of correct language in jazz will stamp a writer's songs as unnecessarily highbrow and hence hinder his sales. Therefore, the song writer allows the vernacular to slip into his compositions wherever it suggests itself." To illustrate this, Hart mentioned the colloquial use of contractions in titles, such as " 'S Wonderful" and "Wha'd Ja Do to Me"; the reconnotation of family words "mama," "papa," and "baby" into a context of adult relationships; and particularly the vocalization of instrumental sounds, such as "Vo-do-de-o-do," "Boop-boop-a-doop," and "Diga-diga-do-diga-doo-doo." Arguably, Tin Pan Alley's version of jazz speech as reflected in song titles and lyrics distantly resembles that spoken by jazz players and others in their immediate social circles.

The composer and Baltimore Sun music critic Gustav Klemm made an early attempt to explain some jazz-related terms for the famously anti...