article 46: JAS

Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, better known as Molière, was born exactly four centuries ago this year. The Comédie Française in Paris is celebrating with a long season of most of his plays. Naoko and I got tickets to Tartuffe, and by way of preparation I took out my Œuvres Complètes and started working through that classic comedy’s five acts. My French ain’t that great, and I stumbled over the verb jaser, looked it up, and found that it means to chatter, prattle or sing. It is pronounced zhahzz-AY. I immediately wondered if it could be the New Orleans Creole origin of the term “jazz”.

Popular as jazz is (and I consider Art Tatum to be the greatest pianist of all time), the word’s etymology is unknown. Most accounts say it comes from “jasm”, a 19th-century slang word for energy or vigor, related to “jism” – semen.

To quote Hunter S. Thompson: Well...maybe so.

“Jaser” would be so much more elegant, so much more La Nouvelle-Orléans, n’est-ce pas? Apparently only one book takes this line: The French Quarter by Norman Asbury. What clinched it for me was the 1916 sheet music cover shown below.

This doesn’t prove anything, nor will it in all likelihood convince anybody, but the question diverted me for a couple of hours on the eve of a sad day: the tenth anniversary of Gustav Leonhardt’s death.

January 15, 2022

- back -