7 Jazz Terms You Need to Know to Sound Like an Expert

7 Jazz Terms You Need to Know to Sound Like an Expert

Jazz music is one of the longest-lasting musical genres out there. Over the past century, jazz has evolved with the times, shifting with world events and even making a difference in the course of international conflict. Unlike many other genres of music, which remain relatively static over time, jazz continues to change with the times, playing key roles in the emergence of other genres as well. For example, hip hop and rock and roll both have their roots in jazz.

Part of learning to love jazz is learning to “speak the language.” Jazz musicians have their own set of terms and “lingo” they use to describe their music. Understanding what the band is saying when you attend a jazz performance is definitely part of the fun, so here are seven jazz terms you definitely need to know in order to know what is going on onstage.

1. Axe

Jazz musicians sometimes refer to their musical instruments as “axes.” Originally, this usually was used to refer to a saxophone (maybe because the two words rhyme), but now it can apply to any instrument the jazz musician plays. Jimi Hendrix also made the term popular in referring to an electric guitar.

Use: You might hear someone say, “What do you think of my new axe? Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?” That means they have a new instrument and want to know what you think of its tone.

2. Lid

You may have heard of the mall chain, Lids. That store got its name from this term, which is used to refer to a hat. Today, the term is most often used to refer to a baseball cap or other hat worn as a fashion statement versus to keep the wearer’s head warm. Be careful using this term, however, since it also has commonly been used to refer to an ounce of marijuana since the 1960s.

Use: “We’re all wearing the same lids tonight to support our team, and James even broke out his jersey as well.”

Interesting fact: “Lid” became a common term used to refer to an ounce of marijuana because the amount of pot that fits in a mayonnaise jar lid is about an ounce

3. Skins Player

The skins player in a jazz band is the drummer. While technically you could use this term to refer to any drummer in any band, the term has remained largely unique to jazz. The term originated when drums were covered with cowhides or other dried animal skins and stuck long after this was no longer ubiquitous. Drums may be referred to simply as “skins” as well.

Use: “I can’t believe our skins player bailed last-minute on our set. Good thing we know a cat who can fill in!

4. Hot Plate

A really great song or a really great recording of a song. This comes initially from the way that a record resembles a plate, so a “hot plate” would be a hot record.

Uses: “That was our best recording yet. I think we’ve got a real hot plate on our hands!

5. Cat

A person who plays jazz. The term emerged because cats, like jazz musicians, tend to go out at night, are resourceful and “always land on their feet,” and remain slightly separate from the rest of society.

Use: “When I played jazz in Kansas City, I used to hang with some cool cats on the weekends.

6. Scatting

Scatting involves improvising nonsense words to a song. The syllables fit with the music, which may be syncopated, but do not form actual words. Vocal jazz musicians may also refer to this as “scat singing,” but in the vernacular it will usually just be used as a single word, “scatting.” This means that “scat cats,” for example, are jazz players who are good at this stylistic technique.

Use: “That cat Dizzy can really scat when it counts.”

Interesting Facts: The term “scat” is thought to have emerged on the scene after Louis Armstrong forgot the lyrics to the Hot Five song “Heebie Jeebies.” Ella Fitzgerald is generally considered one of the greatest scat singers of all time

7. Clams

You might confuse this term with others like “bread” and “scratch,” both of which are used to refer to money. In jazz lingo, however, the term “clams” is used to refer to mistakes a musician makes while performing.

Use: “I don’t know what’s wrong with Joe, but he’s definitely laying down some clams tonight.” The term may also be paired with “clinker,” which is a term for a missed or “fluffed” note, as in, “Joe sure hit a few clinkers tonight. I hope he doesn’t lay down that many clams tomorrow or we’ll have to find a replacement.”

These seven terms barely scratch the surface of a jazz aficionado’s vocabulary, but they will give you a good start when it comes to speaking the language (or at least understanding the conversation) when you are enjoying a live jazz performance. Jazz musicians, cool cats that they are, tend to enjoy having inside jokes and special ways of referring to their instruments, each other, and their lifestyle. To truly appreciate the music, it helps to appreciate the slang that comes with the genre as well.