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Jazz Slang

AAJ Staff By

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From just about its inception, Jazz has had a (spoken) language all its own.

Though most words haven't seen the light of day outside of a jazz club, quite a few have found their way into the mainstream American lexicon, and are still bandied about today. Words like, hip, cat and daddy-o have helped contribute to Jazz's "cool" mystique.

This list contains a few of those colloquial gems; if you know of any others, please send them to us.

18 Karat. All the way, full out.
The Duke is a classy guy, his heart is "18 karat."

Air-check. A recording of a radio or television performance.
Did you hear the "air-check" of Billie Holiday with Gerry Mulligan?

The Apple. New York city. This is now common usage.
We got a gig up in "The Apple" at Minton's with Diz and Bird.

Axe. An instrument.
Hey, Jack, bring your "axe" over tomorrow and we'll jam.

Baby. A term of endearment.
Hey, "baby," I got some bread, lets paint the town.

Bad. Good.
That dude Wynton Marsalis does some "bad" ass playin.'

Bag. A person's particular interest.
I'd like to play with your combo, dude, but your sound just ain't my "bag.."

Balloon lungs. A brass man with plenty of wind.
That cat must have "balloon lungs," Stix said he held that note for three and half minutes!"

Barn Burner. Originally in Sinatra slang this was a stylish, classy woman, but today, it can even be applied to a good football game.
Hey, Quincy, did you see Stella over at the diner? Man, she is one amazing "barn burner."

Barrelhouse. Barrelhouse was the colloquial term for a cabaret in New Orleans where liquor was served. Barrelhouse music is the type of music played in one of these cabarets.
Hey, Man, I dig this "barrelhouse" music. It flows free.

Beat. Exhausted or tired.
Man, we been blowin' all night. I'm really "beat."

Birdbrain. A Charlie Parker imitator.
It's 1957 already. We need something new. I'm gettin' tired of all of the "Birdbrains" around these days..

Blow. A jazzman's term for playing any instrument.
That European guy, Django Reinhardt, can really "blow."

Blow your top. A phrase which expresses enthusiasm or exasperation.
Hey man, I know it's tough, but don't "blow your top."

The Bomb. Very cool.
The Crusader's new CD, "Louisiana Hot Sauce" is "the bomb."

Boogie Man. In the jazz slanguage of 1935, this was a critic.
Roscoe just waxed a great disc and the "boogie man" gave it a bad review.

Boogie Woogie. An early piano blues form that was popularized in Chicago. The term has sexual overtones.
Hey, Lester, dig that "boogie woogie" that Yancy is layin' down.

Bose Bouncing. To play notes so low as to bounce a Bose speaker from its foundation.
I'm sorry, my bassist was just "Bose bouncing.

Bread. A jazzman's word for money.
Alright, Jack, if ya want me to play, ya gotta come up with some "bread."

Break it down. Get hot!! Go to town.

Bring Down or Bringdown. As a verb—to depress. As a noun—one who depresses.
Hey, man, don't "bring me down" with all of this crazy talk.
Hey, let's get out of here, that guy is a real "bringdown."

Bug. To annoy or bewilder.
Man, don't "bug" me with that jive about cleanin' up my act.

Burnin. Used to describe a particularly emotional or technically excellent solo.
Hey, man, did you hear that solo by Lee? It was "burnin."

Cans. Headphones.
That last take was really kickin,' put on the "cans" and lets record the final take.

Cats. Folks who play jazz music.
I used to partake in late-night jam sessions with the "cats" over at Sid's.

Changes. Chord progression.
Hey, Pops, dig those "changes" that the Hawk is playin.'

Character. An interesting, out of the ordinary person.
Sonny is certainly a "character."

Chick. A young and pretty girl.
Hey, Buster, leave it alone. That "chick" is outta your league.

Chill 'ya. When an unusual "hot" passion gives you goose pimples.
Gee, Jody, doesn't it "chill 'ya" the way Benny plays the clarinet?

Chops. The ability to play an instrument, a highly refined technique. Also refers to a brass players facial muscles.
"He played the hell out of that Gershwin; he's sure got chops." and "My chops are still achin' from last nights gig."

Clams. Mistakes while playing music.
Charlie is really layin' down some "clams" tonight.

Clinker. A bad note or one that is fluffed.
Hey, Charlie, that was some "clinker" that you just hit.

Combo. Combination of musicians that varies in size from 3 to 10.
Here me talkin' to ya Lester. Did you see that supreme "combo" that the Hawk put together?

Cool. A restrained approach to music. A superlative which has gained wide acceptance outside of jazz.
That cat Miles Davis plays some "cool" jazz. That cat Miles, is "cool."

Corny, Cornball. A jazz man's term for trite, sweet or stale.
Man, Guy Lombardo is one "corny" cat. Man, Guy Lombardo plays some "cornball" music.

Crazy. Another jazz superlative.
Count Basie's band sure lays down a "crazy" beat.

Crib. Same as pad.
Hey, baby, come on up to my crib awhile and relax.

Crumb. Someone for whom it is impossible to show respect.
Sleazy Eddie is a real "crumb."

Cut. To leave or depart. Also to completely outdo another person or group in a battle of the bands.
Hey, man, did you see the way that two-bit band "cut" when Basie "cut" them last night.

Dad, Daddy-o. A hipster's way of addressing another guy.
Hey, "daddy-o," what's cookin.'

Dark. Angry or upset (used in the Midwest).
Joe was in a real "dark" mood after Jaco showed up 30 minutes late for the gig.

Dig. To know or understand completely.
Hey, dad, I been listenin' to what you been doin' and I "dig" that crazy music.

DeeJay, Disk Jockey. An announcer of records on radio.
Man, he is one crazy "deejay". He spins some cool disks.

Down by law. is to have paid dues; that is, to have earned respect for your talent or ability to "get down."
Charlie Parker spent years on the road working a lot of dives to fine-tune his craft. He earned every bit of success and recognition he later received. He was "down by law."

Drag. As a verb—to depress or bring down a person's spirits or, as a noun—a person or thing which depresses.
Let's get outta here, that guy is a real "drag."

The End. Superlative that is used interchangeably with "too much" or "crazy."
The way Benny blows the clarinet is "the end."

Finger Zinger. Someone who plays very fast.
Ignasio the new guitarist is a finger zinger on the guitar. Damn, that boy is incredible!

Flip. A verb meaning to go crazy or a noun meaning an eccentric.
That dude is really cooking, I think he's going to "flip."

Flip your lid. Same as "Blow your top."
That cat looks crazy. I think he's gonna "flip his lid."

Fly. Smooth or slick.
Hey, Eddie, did you see the hat-check girl Bernice? Man, she is "fly.."

Fracture. To inspire or move someone.
You are the funniest guy I know. When you start to tell a joke, it "fractures" me.

Freak Lip. A pair of kissers that wear like leather; one who can hit high C's all night and play a concert the next day.
Ol' Satchmo, ...now he had a pair of "freak lips!"

Funky. Earthy or down-to-earth.
That George Clinton is one "funky" cat.

Gas. As a noun—something that moves you. As a verb—to stir up feelings.
The way that guy beats the skins is a real "gas."

Gate. Early term for a Jazz musician.
Armstrong is the original Swing Jazz player that's why they call used to call him "Gate."

Get Down. To play or dance superlatively with abandon.
Jaco can really "get down" on the 4-string.

Gig. A paying job.
I'm playing a gig in the city tonight.

Gone. Yet another Jazz superlative.
Lester is a real "gone" cat.

Goof. Fail to carry out a responsibility or wander in attention.
Hey, Leroy, stop "goofin'" when I'm talkin' to ya.

Got your glasses on. you are ritzy or snooty, you fail to recognize your friends, you are up-stage.


Groovy. Used in the fifties to denote music that swings or is funky. For a short while in the sixties, groovy was synonymous with cool. The word has been used little since the seventies.
Hey, Jack, dig that "groovy" beat.

Gutbucket. Gutbucket refers to something to store liquor in and to the type of music associated with heavy drinking. An early term for lowdown or earthy music.
That cat Satchmo started out playing some real "gutbucket" in the houses down in New Orleans.

Hand me that skin (later modified to Hand me some skin) ---A big expression for "shake, pal."
Hey, whaddya say Rufus, "hand me some skin."

Head or Head Arrangement. An arrangement of a song that is not written, but remembered by the band members (the tune and progression to improvise on).
Man, Basie's band uses a lot of "heads," not those written arrangements. That's why his band really cooks.

Heat. Solo space.
Yo, man, I want some "heat" on 'Giant Steps'!

Hep. A term once used to describe someone who knows or understands. Replaced by "hip" about the same time that cool replaced hot. Some sources believe that "Hep" was the surname of a Chicago gangster of the 1890's.
Dipper Mouth Armstrong is a "hep" cat.

Hide hitter—drummer.
The hide hitter didn't show, so we had to make it a duo.

Hip. A term used to describe someone who knows or understands. Originally "hep" until the 40's or 50's.
Yardbird Parker is really "hip."

Hipster. A follower of the various genres of bop jazz in the 50's. These were the precursors of hippies in the 60's.
Those "hipsters" that hang out at Shelly's Manne-Hole are really diggin' the West Coast sound.

Horn. Any instrument (not necessarily a brass or reed instrument).
That dude can sure blow his "horn.."

Hot. A term once used to describe "real" jazz. Replaced as a superlative by "cool" in the late 40's or early 50's.
Satchel Mouth Armstrong played some really "hot" jazz in the 20's.

A Hot Plate. A hot recording.
Boys, I think we got ourselves a "hot plate."

I'm Booted. I'm hip or I understand.
It's cool, man, I know just what you mean, "I'm booted."

In the Mix. Put it together, make it happen.
Put that cat "in the mix," we need a drummer for our upcoming tour.

In the Pocket. Refers to the rhythm section being really together as in...
Those guys are really in the pocket, tonight.

Jack. Jazz man's term for another person. Often used in a negative manner.
Please don't dominate the rap, "Jack." Hit the road, "Jack."

Jake. Okay.
Even though nobody seems to like him, that guy is "jake" with me.

Jam. To improvise.
The band is "jammin'" inside right now.

Jam Session. A group of jazz players improvising.
You might want go downstairs, Duke's boys are having a "jam session."

Jazz. The music which is discussed here. May have come from the French jaser—to chatter. May have come from Jasbo Brown—a dancer.
The 1920's was declared the Age of "Jazz."
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