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Dig This Look at the History of Jazz Slang

From alligator to zoot suit, jazz musicians speak about the language of the scene.

Are you worried that you’re the squarest cat at the gig? Think you’re not righteous enough? So not righteous, in fact, that people think you’re the man? Fear not, hepsters-in-training! The good people at NPR’s Jazz Night in America have got your back.

In this video, jazz musicians like Wayne Shorter, Kamasi Washington, and Sherman Irby take us through jazz slang, which has a long and rich history. Jazz slang gets its roots from post-slavery vernacular, explains Georgetown professor Maurice Jackson, and many of the terms can be traced back to there. America’s “original hepcat” Cab Calloway even published a dictionary of jazz slang in 1939. Titled Hepster’s Dictionary, the book contains slang used by musicians and other entertainers in Harlem.

In the book’s foreword, Calloway wrote: “I don’t want to lend the impression here that the many words contained in this edition are the figments of my imagination. They were gathered from every conceivable source.” So we have his word that this (most likely) isn’t the Version 1.0 of the great Sub Pop subterfuge of 1992. Either way, many of the words in Calloway’s dictionary are still in use on the jazz stages of today. And we can all dig that.

Video Wonders are audiovisual offerings that delight, inspire, and entertain. Have you encountered a video we should feature? Email ella@atlasobscura.com.