by Patrick Feaster, Media Preservation Specialist, Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative, Indiana University
What’s the oldest documented use of the word “jazz”? The leading authority on such questions is the Oxford English Dictionary, and if you were to consult the latest print edition in the Reference Reading Room at Wells Library, you’d find an answer:
1909 C. Stewart Uncle Josh in Society (gramophone-record), One lady asked me if I danced the jazz.
You probably expected “jazz” to have first appeared in something like a book or a newspaper or a magazine—the kinds of source the OED usually cites. But sound recordings, like video recordings and films, are part of the documentary record too, and there’s no reason why the earliest attested example of a word shouldn’t sometimes take the form of recorded audio—even as important a word as “jazz.”
Of course, scholars can’t properly evaluate this sort of evidence unless the recordings themselves are safely preserved and interested parties can reliably discover, access, and review them. What if we don’t just want to take the OED at its word? What if we want to double-check that “jazz” reference and make sure it’s legit?
Enter MDPI. One of the 300,000+ items we’ve digitized so far is a copy, held by the Archives of Traditional Music, of Cal Stewart’s Uncle Josh in Society on a 78 rpm disc—the format the OED calls a “gramophone-record.” We’ve been photographing the label of every 78 rpm disc we digitize, and in this case the label image reveals that the record is a product of the Victor Talking Machine Company with the catalog number 16145.
If you search by disc in the online Discography of American Historical Recordings (DAHR) with “Victor” as the label and “16145” as the catalog number, you’ll find it listed there with a release date of February 1909.
And if you listen to MDPI’s digital file of the Uncle Josh in Society side, you can hear the passage quoted in the OED for yourself: “One lady asked me if I danced the jazz, and I told her no, I danced with my feet.”
Seem pretty conclusive? Well, let’s not be too hasty.
Just by listening to the recording, you already know enough to reject one common mistake made by writers who haven’t listened to it. Numerous sources claim that—to quote one example—“the word ‘jazz’ first appears in the lyrics of a 1909 song called Uncle Josh in Society.” But in spite of a widespread assumption that sound recordings are all about music, Uncle Josh in Society isn’t a song. It’s a story. In fact, Cal Stewart—its performer and author—was the best-known phonographic storyteller of his time. (You can read more about him in the album notes I wrote for a CD compilation of his work: The Indestructible Uncle Josh.)
And let’s dig a little deeper still. It’s common knowledge that the “same” book can go through multiple revised editions, but people who would never confuse two editions of a book might not realize that a published sound recording such as Uncle Josh in Society can likewise exist in multiple versions with significant differences between them. And that sometimes creates serious bewilderment. Back in 1968, etymologist Peter Tamony notified historian Dick Holbrook of a reference to “jazz” he’d discovered while listening to Victor 16145. A few years later, Holbrook wrote:
This would have been a most important documentation of the earliest proven use of the word jazz…except that the critical sentence, “One lady asked me if I danced the jazz….” is not on the record. I have the record myself. All the rest of the quoted monologue is there—but not the part about Jazz. I’m afraid Peter Tamony got swindled on that and was reporting what somebody else told him. But I assure you, dear reader, wherever else the word jazz might have been heard before 1910, it was not on any gramophone record.
We’ve heard the word “jazz” on Victor 16145 for ourselves, but Holbrook seems awfully sure it isn’t there. What gives? The explanation, as you may have guessed, is that we’re dealing here with two different versions of Victor 16145, one of which contains the “jazz” reference, and one of which doesn’t. Holbrook hadn’t established that the line couldn’t be heard on any copy of Victor 16145, but only that it couldn’t be heard on his copy. That said, he was still on to something.
It’s true that Victor 16145 itself was first released in 1909. However, the comic sketch Uncle Josh in Society was then already a decade old, having also appeared as Edison cylinder 3899 (in 1899), Victor single-faced disc 661 (in 1901), Columbia cylinder 14027 (in 1899), and Columbia single-faced disc 1489 (in 1903)—and that’s far from a complete list. Moreover, Stewart performed it multiple times for most of these releases, often months or years apart, sometimes because of physical limits on the number of duplicates that could be made from each master recording, sometimes to take advantage of improvements in recording technology, and sometimes to accommodate different sizes of media (a seven-inch disc doesn’t run as long as a ten-inch disc). Each recording of a different performance is called a “take,” and every take is unique. Two takes of a given selection can be as dissimilar as any two editions of a book.
When we photograph the label of a 78 rpm disc at MDPI, we’re careful to use lighting that also allows the relief and intaglio markings in the area around the label to be clearly seen, since this space is comparable to the copyright page in a book in terms of the importance of the metadata it contains. For example, the tiny number four visible at nine o’clock in the MDPI label image of Uncle Josh in Society is the “take number” and shows that our disc contains the fourth of several different takes.
If we now pull up the record for Victor 16145 in DAHR, we can see that the company used two different numbered takes when pressing it: two and four. Take two was recorded on November 9, 1908, and must have been used for the first pressings sold starting in 1909. That’s presumably the version Holbrook consulted, the one without the “jazz” line. But Victor 16145 remained in the catalog until 1926. And take four—the one we have, and the one Tamony must have had—wasn’t recorded until July 31, 1919, by which time the word “jazz” was in common use.
It seems Stewart had introduced the line about “jazz” to bring one of his older routines up to date when making a new recording of it, prompting past investigators to mistake the new recording for the old one and to believe it was ten years older than it was. Others have long since pointed this out, and the online version of the OED now gives the correct (and unimpressive) date of 1919 for the “jazz” reference in Uncle Josh in Society. But misinformation dies hard once it’s out there, and countless books, articles, and websites continue to report the 1909 citation as fact.
I bring this up because it’s a classic case of a mistake someone made while trying to use a sound recording in research—a mistake with significant and lasting consequences. Bear in mind that it’s only one example of one particular type of mistake out of many I could have chosen. But as Indiana University pursues its commitment to cultivating its rich audiovisual holdings as assets for research and teaching, it’s well worth our while to consider all the ways in which such endeavors can go awry and to brainstorm about how best to guard against them.
So what would it take, in this one concrete instance, to keep faculty and students from making the same catastrophic mistake? Is accurate, comprehensive, intrusively conspicuous metadata the answer—and if so, will it be feasible to provide at scale? Or is it a matter of fostering a community of well-informed users who know enough to work things out for themselves—and if so, how do we best do that?
 John Simpson and Edmund Weiner, ed., Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 8:204.
 Dick Holbrook, “Our Word JAZZ,” Storyville 50 (Dec. 1973-Jan. 1974): 46-58, at p. 50.
 In an older print version of Uncle Josh in Society, Stewart had instead written: “One lady wanted to know if I danced the german, but I told her I only danced in English.” See Cal Stewart, Punkin Centre Stories (Chicago: Ryan Printing House, 1903), 24.
 David Shulman, “The Earliest Citation of Jazz,” in Studies in Slang, part II, ed. Gerald Leonard Cohen (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1989); 120-124.