Inevitably, a firestorm erupted on Twitter and Facebook after trumpeter Nicholas Payton published this post, titled “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore.” And then this follow-up, “An Open Letter To My Dissenters.”

In the second post Payton writes, “‘Jazz’ is an oppressive colonialist slave term and I want no parts [sic] of it.” This sounds similar to Fred Ho’s assessment: “I don’t use the term ‘jazz’ because I consider it a racial slur. Professor Archie Shepp from UMass Amherst asserts and I agree with him, that the word jazz comes from the French verb jaser, which means to chatter nonsensically or gibberish. So from the very beginning, its classification was a form of debasement.”

And yet the etymology of “jazz” is far more ambiguous than these statements suggest. Historian Lewis Porter has a helpful blog post here, and his book Jazz: A Century of Change contains a chapter on the topic, from which I quote:

“None of the linguistic theories about jazz has been proven — not the theories that relate it to African words, or the one that relates it to the French word jaser (to chatter), or the one that relates it to the slang word gism, which meant ‘enthusiasm’ but also may have meant ‘semen.’ All of the derivations from foreign languages are speculative because they are purely based on the sound of the word, and etymologies based on sound alone are notoriously unreliable.”

Fred Ho, following Archie Shepp, puts forward the jaser argument as if it were established fact. It is anything but. The truth is that no one knows precisely how the word “jazz” came to be applied to music.

The musical term “jazz” was widely in use by 1918. Needless to say, many years have passed. Whatever negative or possibly racist connotations that came with the word have surely been overtaken and decisively buried. Meanings change. As Lewis Porter observes in his book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, the surname “Coltrane” is actually an inheritance from slaveholders. And yet now, the word “Coltrane” could not be more African-American.

I won’t get into Payton’s many other assertions, some of which have to do with jazz cutting itself off from popular music — a very complex and valid subject to explore. I would, however, like to print another comment from Payton, which was on the record but did not make it into my recent JazzTimes feature [pdf]. It was back in July that Payton told me:

My issue has become that a lot of jazz today doesn’t swing, doesn’t feel good, doesn’t have a blues sensibility, it’s just become this word that has been bastardized and able to be used for things to me that don’t represent the best of what this music is. So I’ve just sort of distanced myself from the word because it’s come to carry a negative connotation. People say jazz, that music where cats stand up onstage and play solo after solo of self-indulgent, self-important stuff – that’s really not what I feel the music is supposed to be about.

Also it’s become acceptable in jazz, if there aren’t too many people in the club it’s cool, if the music alienates listeners it’s cool, if it’s above their heads — this whole elitist attitude that has served to the music’s detriment.

[…]

The music has gotten far too much away from itself – so to me, if that is jazz, then you guys can have it. I want to do something else.

That, it seems to me, is very different from the “oppressive colonialist slave term” argument. The latter strikes me as purely ideological, while what I’ve quoted above doesn’t seem far off from Jason Marsalis’s much-discussed “Jazz Nerds International” argument.

To close, I will quote the epigraph to Horace Silver’s website: “I have been blessed to walk among and perform with some of the great geniuses of this music we so lovingly call jazz [my emphasis]. I hope that I may inspire some of the youth of today, as these musicians inspired and still do inspire me.”

If Horace Silver is using the word “jazz,” and even doing so “lovingly,” then I really have nothing to add.