Image credit: Louis Armstrong House Museum

For more than a century, baseball and jazz have been a duet.

“There are only three things that America will be remembered for 2000 years from now when they study this civilization: The Constitution, Jazz music, and Baseball,” once wrote essayist Gerald Early. “These are the 3 most beautiful things this culture’s ever created.”

Both uniquely American innovations, the history of jazz and baseball are intertwined. The word ‘jazz’ got its start in baseball; it was the early-20th century baseball term for ‘pep, energy’ before it became the term  for the new frenetic style of music.

The origins of the word  are uncertain, but “jazz” was named the “Word of the 20th Century” by the American Dialect Society. The Oxford Dictionary says that its first known appearance is in 1912, in reference to baseball’s Pacific Coast League. Ben Henderson, a pitcher for the Portland Beavers, invented a new pitch he called the jazz ball. In his 2012 piece entitled, “How Baseball Gave Us Jazz,” Ben Zimmer not only corroborates that story, but gives us more:

One hundred years ago, a hard-throwing but erratic minor league pitcher named Ben Henderson was getting ready for his opening day start for the Portland Beavers against the Los Angeles Angels. Henderson had pitched well for the Beavers the previous year, but he began the 1912 season with a well-earned reputation as an unreliable drunk.

Henderson gave a Los Angeles Times reporter a preview of what he had planned for the game. “I got a new curve this year,” he explained, “and I’m goin’ to pitch one or two of them tomorrow. I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.” The headline for the item, from April 2, 1912, was simply “Ben’s Jazz Curve.”

In “The Mysterious Origins of Jazz,” Christian Blauvelt considers the etymological mystery of the word. The New Orleans Times-Picayune first referred  to “jas bands” in November 1916. This spelling indicates that perhaps ‘jasm,’—an African-American slang term dating  back to 1860’s meaning ‘vim’ or ‘energy’—is where the word jazz is derived.

The “who” or “what” behind the creation of jazz? Also a mystery. Some posit that jazz was born in 1895, when Buddy Bolden started his first band. Others say 1917, when Nick LaRocca and his Original Dixieland Jazz Band recorded the first Jazz record, “Livery Stable Blues.” Jelly Roll Morton once said that he invented the genre in 1920. But there is one thing that all accounts agree on—Jazz was born in New Orleans, but it wasn’t confined there long.

From 1910 to 1970, roughly six million African Americans fled the South due to lynchings, discrimination, segregation, denied rights, and a lack of jobs. An outcome of The Great Migration was the Harlem Renaissance, an early-century  artistic, social, intellectual, and cultural movement that had New York City spellbound. When Black Americans brought their culture north, they brought with them  the newly flourishing New Orleans music.

Jazz and swing musicians, who were very much a part of this new wave of Black creativity, were also intense baseball fans. It was during this period that baseball and jazz converged. Softball and baseball teams were sponsored by some of the big-name bands at the time,  including  Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington.  The Raggedy Nine, later known as both the Smart Nine and the Secret Nine, a semi-pro Negro League baseball team, was sponsored by Louis Armstrong; in the summer of 1931, they toured with him. For three months, donning white jerseys with “Armstrong” across the chest, they scrimmaged other Black teams in southern Louisiana with Armstrong throwing out the first pitch at each game.

In their August 22, 1931 issue, the Louisiana Weekly proclaimed, “Folk are declaring that ‘The Cornet Wizard’ will be out there pulling for his clan to come through on the long end of the count and his mysterious order will play like the dickens to lick ‘Cotchie’ Bailey’s club.” Armstrong’s presence at the game was a big deal, and news of his appearance brought out 1500 spectators for the game against the Melpomene White Sox. The day included three baseball games instead of the originally scheduled two, and a community picnic.

But baseball was more than just an opportunity to barnstorm and raise extra money. The activity was not only promotional, but communal: both music and sport brought people together. Jazz bands would tour for extended periods of time, and band leaders found that baseball would lift spirits. There was a fun, competitive nature to it. According to his biographer Peter J. Levinson, trumpeter Henry James once asked a musician, “What do you play?” The musician replied, “What do I play? I play tenor saxophone and double on clarinet.” James said, “No, what position in baseball?”

James’ band made baseball fields in cow pastures so they could play as they toured. They’d play other bands, prison and college teams, or divide into two teams just to get a game in. Extra balls, bats, and gloves were just as important to the tour as the instruments each man needed. It was rumored James kept a guy on hand who could pitch, but couldn’t actually play an instrument.

The Great Migration not only affected jazz, but baseball. Black baseball benefited from the surge in the Black population in urban areas. In the newly formed, larger Black communities, professional baseball teams started to emerge. Edward W. Bolden and Rube Foster capitalized on this and formed the first professional Black baseball leagues; Bolden’s Eastern Colored League and Foster’s Negro National League.  It is believed that the Harlem Renaissance, specifically the teachings of Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. DuBois, inspired Foster.

While jazz was increasing in popularity, baseball games became a popular pastime and source of entertainment among jazz musicians. Jazz is considered the music of protest and liberation and the Negro League was, in a way, protest, but it also provided a protected arena for socialization and civil rights activities. Black jazz musicians frequently attended games and mingled among the players. Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City Museum believes their attendance “created a level of Black Star Power that naturally enhanced fan appeal. It lent to the excitement that made Negro Leagues Baseball a fan favorite. There was a mutual admiration. It was pretty commonplace to see Jazz artists at the Negro League games by day and the ballplayers at the club after their games.”

Like baseball, jazz was segregated. Though jazz has its roots in the Black community, it was still very heavily affected by Jim Crow. Swing music was increasingly popular among both Black and white fans alike, however, Black and white musicians did not play together, and jazz audiences did not co-mingle. The most famous jazz club of the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem’s Cotton Club, featured Black musicians, but only seated white audiences. In Chicago, Black musicians weren’t allowed to play at downtown clubs, but thrived in venues on the city’s south side. As jazz rose in popularity, it became the musical voice of civil rights, and helped generate a cultural shift.

Stanley Crouch, a jazz historian and critic, once wrote in the New York Daily News: “Jazz was always an art, but because of the race of its creators, it was always more than music. Once the whites who played it and the listeners who loved it began to balk at the limitations imposed by segregation, jazz became a futuristic social force in which one was finally judged purely on the basis of one’s individual ability. Jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America.”

Ten years before Jackie Robinson integrated baseball, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and pianist Teddy Wilson integrated jazz. In 1937, enormously popular white band leader Benny Goodman, also known as the King of Swing, invited Wilson and Hampton to play on the same bandstand as him. “As far as I’m concerned,” Hampton has said, “what (Goodman) did in those days—and they were hard days in 1937—made it possible for Negroes to have their chance in baseball and in other fields.”

Hampton also happened to be close friends with Buck O’Neil. “Hampton was a devout (Kansas City) Monarchs fan during the time when Buck was player/manager. Buck would put him in uniform and Hampton would sit on the bench and serve as an honorary coach,” Kendrick shared.

Teddy Wilson was considered “the definitive swing pianist” and played for some of the biggest names in jazz. He spent most of his career as a soloist or leading small groups, but his four-year stint with Benny Goodman was one of the highpoints of his career. First, Wilson played in the Goodman trio with Goodman on clarinet and Gene Krupa on drums;  later on, the group would expand to a quartet, then a sextet.

The way in which Wilson came to join Goodman is quite similar to the way Jackie Robinson joined Major League Baseball. John Hammond, music critic and producer, heard Teddy sitting in on a on a live broadcast from the Grand Terrace in Chicago and was impressed. Hammond took Wilson under his wing as his protege, urging Goodman to make Wilson a part of his trio. Hammond felt Wilson was the right person to help integrate the bandstand because Wilson was the “first young black musician I had come across who was the child of intellectuals who had the bearing, demeanor, and attitude toward life which would enable him to survive in a white society.” Branch Rickey looked into Jackie Robinson’s background the same way. Jackie was college-educated, and seen as a man of great character. Rickey felt these traits were imperative to integrating baseball. As Kendrick remarks:

Sports and music have been, and remain today, the most unifying things in America. You would have to believe that Wilson’s early influence by performing with White musicians at the very least planted the seed that integration was more than a notion. But, I think World War II played a greater role in the integration of baseball. You had young Black soldiers dying, fighting the same racism that they were being asked to accept home. The mindset became, “If they can die fighting for their country, they ought to be able to play baseball.”

The integration of jazz may have led the way for the integration of entertainment culture, as well as baseball. “Jazz needed an ally. And by 1948, a second front had been opened in major league baseball. The flag Hampton and Eldridge once carried was now in Jackie Robinson‘s hands.”

After his retirement, Robinson became a leader in the civil rights movement. An NAACP board member, he and his wife, Rachel, hosted jazz picnics at his Connecticut home to soothe tensions, raise money, and offer a peaceful space away from the demands and dangers of activism. The first of these was held Sunday, June 23, 1963. 40 of the country’s top jazz musicians gathered before a crowd of 600 to raise bail money for jailed civil rights activists, including the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. After Jackie Robinson’s death in 1972, the concert, now known as Jazz on the Grass, became a fundraiser for the Jackie Robinson Foundation.

The connection between baseball and jazz has continued throughout the years since both integrated. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, in Kansas City, Missouri, shares a building with the American Jazz Museum. According to Kendrick, “It’s important to the NLBM that visitors understand the importance of the connection between Baseball and Jazz. The Negro Leagues operated during the height of Jazz popularity. The majority of Black Baseball’s biggest stars were Jazz aficionados. So, it’s really about creating authentic experiences that brings those parallels to life. That’s why we created events like “Jazz & Jackie,” which celebrates Jackie Robinson and his love of Jazz, an art form that was born in New Orleans but got its soul in Kansas City.”

Some former Major League Baseball players are also jazz enthusiasts.

Carmen Fanzone, who played for the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs during his four year major league career, is an accomplished trumpet player. He even once played The Star-Spangled Banner at Wrigley Field before a Cubs-Dodgers matchup. Since retiring, he began a jazz music career playing the flugelhorn.

Former Yankees great Bernie Williams retired from baseball in 2006, and is in his second career as a jazz guitarist. He co-authored “Rhythms of the Game: The Link Between Musical and Athletic Performance,” a book that explores the connections between sports and music.  In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, Williams spoke about “that relentless pursuit of perfection,” that both an athlete and a serious instrumentalist possess. “Everything in baseball for me was rhythm,” he said.  “You can see it as far as the way that you react to a low-and-away pitch, the way you have to wait for it and have a perfect swing and hit it on a line drive the other way. That swing is the result of detailed practice. It’s an art. It’s poetry in motion; very similar to when you improvise over a set of chords, and you’re in a zone, and you nail every note and hit every pattern.”

Though baseball and jazz may have drifted apart from each other, as well as from where they began, 100 years later their presence in American society remains key to unlocking the soul of America.

Thank you for reading

This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.

Subscribe now
You need to be logged in to comment. Login or Subscribe
Robert Grace
James Springfield
Great read, thanks!
Todd Tomasic
Terrific story! Thanks for your hard work
Robert McWilliams
Excellent. I remember hearing Reggie Smith talk about his love for jazz and his drumming back in the Cardinals days. Found this excerpt in a 1978 SI story on Smith: Music was an interest shared by all the Smiths. Lonnie sang, one sister played the clarinet, another the piano. Nellie was a pianist, and Reggie played almost everything. He started with the cello and then proceeded to the saxophone, clarinet, flute, piano, trombone, guitar, violin, bass and, finally, drums, which he plays well enough to appear in clubs in Los Angeles and on the road. He considers Buddy Rich and Frank Sinatra's drummer, Irv Cottler, his mentors.

link to SI article:
Robert McWilliams
Link to pic of Reggie Smith playing drums:
Thank you!
Donald Bashline
Thanks for this! I learned a lot. You probably know, there's a Modern Jazz Quartet piece titled "Baseball" on their album Live at the Lighthouse. I don't know the story behind the title, but would love to.