Jazz; Whence? Why? Whither?
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 20 Feb 1924, p. 88-96

O'Hara, Geoffrey, Speaker
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Item Type:
An address of music, wit, and comedic entertainment focussed on the subject of Jazz. Some amusing definitions of the term "Jazz." The universal love of music. Indefinable jazz. How the word has been used. The speaker's definition of jazz. Many personal anecdotes and reminiscences told in an amusing style. Encouraging the love of music in children. The economic value of music. The physical and mental creative sides of human nature, with examples. Encouraging the creative side, with anecdotes. Starting from the folksongs of England, Ireland, Germany, France, and before that, all made before the arrival of composition as our foundation for music. The need to start with children in order to develop a musical community. The speaker entertained, and responded to questions from the audience.
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20 Feb 1924
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JAZZ; WHENCE? WHY? WHITHER? AN ADDRESS BY MR. GEOFFREY O'HARA, SINGER, COMPOSER, INTERPRETER. Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto, Thursday, February 20, 1924.

PRESIDENT BROOKS introduced the speaker.


Mr. O'Hara was received with loud applause, and expressed his great pleasure and honour he felt in addressing such a noble and representative gathering in the greatest city of Canada on a subject which was occupying the attention of the curators of music in the United States and the world in general, and which has given a great deal of disgust to Supervisors' Conferences during the last five years: (Laughter) The subject was one that had created a great many enemies, filled many columns of newspapers, caused many jealousies among publishers, and increased the deposits of instrument makers.

Nobody knows just what Jazz is. (Laughter) It is like the rover in the hockey team; you, look to him to secure all the goals because he cannot claim to be anything in special. It is like the wild deuce in a poker game. (Laughter) However, everybody in the world is on fire with music. No doubt we all love music. Regardless of the nation you go into, everybody loves music. A few here and there will really admit that they don't understand a note of music, like General Grant, who said he knew two tunes; one of them was "Yankee Doodle"--and the other one wasn't. (Laughter)

Mr. O'Hara is a Canadian, born in Ontario. As a singer, composer, and entertainer he is unique. Sense and nonsense struggled with each other during a talk marked by musical versatility of an unusual order. But there was more than mere fun in the entertainment.

You can give a hundred definitions of Jazz and people won't know what it is. It is a misnomer, in the first place, and a great many 'people think the word should be dropped. As a matter of fact, although nobody knows its origin exactly, except it come from an old slang term, Jazz Bow, the most recent use of the word Jazz started in New Orleans in a dive that was down behind the police lines.

People enquire, "What is Jazz?" I always answer that in one way; I say, "Jazz is the absence of better music." (Great laughter)--Just as dust on a carpet is the absence of a carpet-sweeper; just as the dirty neck of a boy is the absence of soap and water. Of course there is nothing really the matter with dust, because dust is just misplaced mud, and mud is all right, goodness knows; it is just three percent earth and four percent water; and it is what grows all our beautiful plants, fruits and vegetables; and water is all right; we drink it--some of us (laughter)--we swim in it; we put it in the milk. (Laughter) In a restaurant the other day the waiter asked me if I would have milk or water, and I said milk, and I got both. (Laughter)

The word Jazz has been used in circus life in different places, to mean--it didn't mean anything! If anything went wrong they would just say it was "Jazz." (Laughter) It was the wild deuce in the deck. The word was used for want of another term. If people would only invent terms in English language and give us something to use we wouldn't have to use those terms that were invented in blind-Tomalleys and in dance halls. But there is no word that means "Wild deuce" in the deck, so we have to use the term, just as the old nigger in the New Orleans orchestra called his performance "Jazz.

A great many foreign artists say that English cannot be sung; that it is not a musical language. They never use the personal pronoun; they never say, "I can't do it, I never heard Dame Clara Butt sing; I have never heard John McCormack or Edward Lloyd, or Ben Davies; I never heard anything that Shakespeare wrote; I never heard English read by an artist." They don't say that, they only say, "It can't be sung because it isn't musical." Those foreign artists would lead us to suppose that the English of Byron and Keats and Shelley and Burns and Shakespeare cannot be sung because it is not musical; but I notice the enormous cheques they receive are written in English; they are very musical (laughter), in fact I think that is their National Anthem. (Great laughter) Of course that is just plain bunkthat English cannot be sung. Singing is simply glorified speaking, and when some of those foreigners will learn how to speak English they will have made the first step towards singing English. (Hear, hear and applause)

We used to call everything "popular songs"; then we got tired of that and called it "rag-time"; and then we called ragtime "Jazz." Goodness knows what the next word will be when we get tired. of Jazz and invent another.

Nine-tenths of the things that Irving Berlin, the "King of Jazz," wrote has no Jazz in it; his "Alexander's Rag-time Band" has not one note of rag-time in it--(Imitating); it is the old Polish Schottische (Imitating); it is four beats to the bar-bum, bum, bum, bumb; four bums to the bar (Imitating amid great laughter) I never use the word "bar" in the States any more, since we got Prohibition; I always say "measure." (Laughter) We took measures to get rid of the bar, but--to make a very terrible pun--the bars are there still. (Laughter) Out of those hell-holes of iniquity they moved the bars into the mountains, and they are there still. (Laughter)

When you get into one of those Jazz joints and ask a waiter to bring you in some food, he brings in lamb chops and French green peas. You look at the plate and see the peas all right--they are there, both of them. (Laughter) You ask where the lamb chops are, and he says, "They are under that right pea." (Laughter) You give it a little roll--it is one of those old-fashioned peas--they are making them square now so that they won't roll off the knife--and there they are hiding beneath the pea. You say, "What is the idea of this price? Why all this expense? It says on the bill-of-fare lamb and green peas $2.75." He replies, "It is the overhead." You look overhead, but you see only tinsel; but he means of course that the overhead is the music; you look over there and see one of those ivory-thumpers, one of those key-clawers, on of those piano-players, and there is a man with a "crying cornet" and a man with a "sobbing saxophone," one with a slippery slide trombone. They are playing, and a drummer with every conceivable noise in the world; the noises of the jungle are all there, and of the barnyard, too; the things that wake you up in the morning, and that keep you awake at night; indeed, every conceivable noise.

Now, to some people that gives a great deal of pleasure; to others it gives indigestion. To some people it is noise; to others it is music. So we must exercise toleration, because Shakespeare said, "Music is a concord of sweet sounds." People say, "You don't call Jazz music?" I ask them, "What is music?" and that sticks everybody. If you go to the dictionary you will find it is melody, it is notes, it is music, it is this and that and the other thing. Shakespeare said it; he said, "It is the concord of sweet sounds." He said, "He who hath not music in his soul is fit for treason, stratagem and spoils." I always reply to educators that if anyone is fit for treason, stratagem and spoils, without doubt that person did not have music put into his little soul when he was young. That is a fact. Visit the jails, and the majority of the inmates will tell you that they never had any of the fine arts put into their lives. In other words, when they got out into the world they had not been taught what to read or how to read. When you come to the evening of your life and sit in your easy chair and hear your little child-bone of your bone and blood of your blood-playing those tunes you learned in your childhood it is just as if you had a photograph in your memory of the little swimming-hole or the little school where you had your " pitcher took" with the rest of the children. It is that beautiful musical photograph that should be given to little children. It can be done in six months. In the absence of that that drives them to Jass, and I have asked hundreds and thousands of children that question. (Applause)

I said, "What a paradox!" on this morning there are 23 moving picture places going full blast three times a day teaching the children music. A great philosopher once said, "Let me make the songs of the people, and I care not who makes their laws."

Music is an important proposition; it has wonderful economic value. In Illinois it costs approximately $6,500 for every person put in an asylum or in jail. I went into a little school on the outskirts of an Ohio city. They had 600 children in the audience and 200 parents in front of me. On the piano I played a few tunes to the children and sang a couple of little Irish songs and "K-k-Katy." I played then a number of simple classics, but few children seemed to know them. I played the Melody in F, and one or two knew it. I played Mendelssohn's "Spring Song" and nobody knew it; then Mendelssohn's Wedding March, and about a dozen held up their hands. I said, "For the love of Mike, how do you people expect to get married?" (Laughter) I sat down and played "Little Nellie Kelly" and 600 hands went up. (Laughter) You have heard of the Irish florist on the 17th of March; he puts green ink at the roots of the white rose, and gets a green rose."

If you "feed" children classic music between 7 and 9 years of age you will get classical-minded children; but keep on as you are now and you will go on breeding Jazzy children. These little children were living on the outskirts of a town where there was dirt and filth, and nothing much else. That is a good place to breed criminals, where there is no community house; the church does not interest them; no music in the schools; the cheap teachers are underpaid, and when the children grow up and get free, away they go. When you trace the history of a lot of those young men you find they go wrong because they are not kept interested and kept busy.

I ran into one little school in Marietta, Ohio, where they give credit to children for work. If a boy does not like Geography, for instance, he is asked what he likes, and he says, "Well, I would like to work on guns," so they send him down to the gunsmiths, and give him "credit." If a boy can't like history, they send him down to the carpenter shop or elsewhere and give him "credit" for that, with the result that in 15 years they have not one boy sent from Marietta to Mansfield Reformatory as Judge Ben Lindsay said, "Keep the boys busy."

He picked out of 500 twenty-five of the worst boys and made them monitors for the rest of the town. (Laughter) When I am going to give a concert in a "border town," and there are rowdies of all ages prowling around the theatre, I bring them all into the dressing room and say, "I want you to go out in the audience and keep a bunch of ruffians quiet, and the first one that makes a noise, clip him on the ear." They say, "All right; watch us." (Laughter) The audience will sit there quiet for fear of getting their heads knocked off. I remember a theatre owner saying to me, "They have been breaking my windows and everything." I asked him to send them to me in the dressing-room, and I sent them out to keep the others quiet. During the entire concert there was only one disturbance, and this was what I heard--"Shut your mouth, will you?" (Laughter) The kids sat like statues to hear the music. You see, I was keeping their minds busy.

There are two creative sides to human nature--physical and mental. People like to make things, to draw things, to think out things. A child should be taught to think constructively, to create. The Almighty has made us so that we can create on both planes-physical and mental. Now if the mental is not developed equally with the physical, the physical is very liable to run riot, to have nothing to hold it in check. That wonderful mental stimulus is the leaven in the life of the physical; it is a bolster, and the two things work absolute wonders, if they are cultivated side by side to any extent at all. The Boy Scouts are taking children out and doing marvellous things for them, and the Girl Guides are doing similar things for girls. Many girls don't know much about anything; their occupation-instinct has not been developed, and most of them run riot because their physical creative ability is just twice what it should be, not having been held in mental check by the creative ability, on the other plane. In the Western Hemisphere we give attention to the material, the manufacturing, while in the Eastern Hemisphere they develop the spiritual. But now the two things are coming together. We are developing on this continent men of great renown and calibre. I might mention such Captains of Industry as Otto Khan, Charles Schwab, and others, who have given so much to music. On these shores we are developing wonderfully fine men, for when you join financing and artistic ability you get a very wonderful thing. Now, the same thing should be done for children in the public schools--develop the creative ability, teach children how to think; tell them stories and encourage them to repeat to you those stories. I remember one of the teachers in the Toronto University who said that he would have only one paper set for entrance examinations, and that would be "Composition," for he could tell every--about the child if he had that one paper.

You will find that the folksongs of England, Ireland, Germany, France and even of the savages, were all made before the arrival of composition. That should be our foundation; start from that and grow, and not try to start from the top and come down. Some people think you can make a community musical by injecting into it a symphony orchestra, as you do serum into a patient. It can't be done. You must start with the children and teach them to sing as they do in England, as the Welsh miners go with their hymn-books under their arms, and have singing in their churches, singing in their homes around the piano, and singing as we do in the Rotary Club. Then music will develop, and a musical nation will be the result, but jamming music down people's throats from the top cannot be done; it must come from the bottom up, as everything else grows, as the oak tree grows, so that when the winds come along it will not blow down. If our nation had grown from the bottom up we would not have been blown down by this Jazz breeze that hit us ten years ago. (Applause)

Mr. O'Hara then invited questions, and immediately a call was made for him to sing "K-k-k-Katy." He responded amid applause. He showed how the soldiers sang it in France. He also told how one of the American soldiers said that the boys in Allenby's army had sung that song when entering Jerusalem. It made him feel very proud to be the composer of the song that took the Holy City! (Laughter) The soldiers had added that in those days what the soldiers sang was "K-k-k-Koutie." (Great laughter) The American soldier had added that the song was very popular with the boys, and it ran in their heads all day long! (Great laughter) The speaker then gave the song in Yiddish, amid loud laughter. He told of a teacher who was asking her class to tell about the American Indian--how tall he was, how he was straight up and down, and silent and stoic; then she asked, "Now, children, what is a stoic?" One of the Yiddish pupils replied, "A stoic is the boid that brings the babies." (Great laughter) The teacher said, "No, Izzy, you have the wrong "woid"; and Izzy said, "You can't 'hoit' my feelings." Another teacher asked a class to make up a sentence using the word "judicious." A boy said, "My mother makes kalte feesh and other Jew dishes." (Treat laughter)

Now, I want to do something to show that it is not the tune, but it is the way it is played. I contend good music badly played ceases to be good music. I have heard good music played at times, and it was the most atrocious stuff in the world. Yet you can hear Levinne take simple pieces and invest them with beauty so that they become very wonderful. Last night in Massey Hall he proved the old saying that greatness in life does not consist so mush in doing great things as it does in doing the common things of life uncommonly well. (Applause) I want to show you that it is not the tune, but "how it is played" that gives the effect.

(The speaker then played Yankee Doodle in ordinary time, and then like a ballad. He then played "Katy" in imitation of a music-box, a steam calliope at the circus, a side-show at the circus, the chimes of church bells, as a dirge, and as a waltz. He also gave an imitation of Tango as played in Argentine, and a specimen of "Everlasting Jazz." This performance elicited loud and prolonged applause and laughter.)

SIR EDMUND WALKER voiced the thanks of the Club to the Speaker for his wonderfully interesting and instructive address.

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Jazz; Whence? Why? Whither?

An address of music, wit, and comedic entertainment focussed on the subject of Jazz. Some amusing definitions of the term "Jazz." The universal love of music. Indefinable jazz. How the word has been used. The speaker's definition of jazz. Many personal anecdotes and reminiscences told in an amusing style. Encouraging the love of music in children. The economic value of music. The physical and mental creative sides of human nature, with examples. Encouraging the creative side, with anecdotes. Starting from the folksongs of England, Ireland, Germany, France, and before that, all made before the arrival of composition as our foundation for music. The need to start with children in order to develop a musical community. The speaker entertained, and responded to questions from the audience.