All That Jazz! 7 Slang Terms for Hepcats


Over its hundred-year history jazz has traveled from the streets of New Orleans to the concert halls of Japan. The musical style that began as a derivation of Louisiana ragtime grew into the big-band swing of the 1920s and 30s, improvisational bebop beginning in the 40s, and finally to jazz fusion, a mixture of jazz, funk, and R&B. But unlike other musical mediums, every movement in jazz is still thriving to this day. So "drum on your drums...sob on the long cool winding saxophones. Go to it, O jazzmen!"


The word hip (originally spelled "hep") describes someone who is "in the know" or "in tune" with the latest style. This usage of hip gained popularity around 1905, and in jazz it refers to the "cool" demeanor of talented musicians or informed listeners. While hip also denotes the pelvis, hip and hep have been the accepted names for "the fruit of the wild rose" or "rose hips" from as early as 725 BCE. But whether it's a rose or a song, in the words of legendary saxophonist Cannonball Adderley: "hipness is not a state of mind, it's a fact of life."


In 1938 bandleader Cab Calloway released The Hepster's Dictionary, in which he defined the word hepcat as a guy or gal "who knows what it's all about." A portmanteau of hep and cat, the word came to represent both lovers of the music and jazz musicians themselves. But by the late 1950s it was shortened to "cat" alone in common usage, and a decade later "cat" was documented as the accepted title when the jazz giant, pianist Thelonious Monk first heard revolutionary saxophonist Ornette Coleman; "Man, that cat is nuts!" Monk said.


When a jazz musician really identifies with a tune or a jazz devotee discovers a new sound, you can say they dig the music. In the sixth edition of The Hepster's Dictionary Cab Calloway defines "dig," as "to comprehend, to understand," using the example: "Do you dig this jive?" (with "jive" referring to music). But in jazz, "to understand" is often synonymous with "to enjoy" and dig can point to love just as easily as mastery.


If you've ever seen a jazz musician blush after being told they've got chops, it's not because they have something in their teeth. The word refers to musical skill or ability. In bebop, chops implies not only the stamina necessary to keep up with the style's lightning-fast melodies, but the ability to successfully improvise within a bebop tune. And in the words of bandleader Duke Ellington, bringing your chops to a session is as vital as bringing your instrument because "playing [bebop] is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing."

Scat singing

Jazz vocalists love to solo, but that might not be the case if a singer had to invent new lyrics when he or she wanted to riff. Enter scat singing. Scat style substitutes words with nonsense syllables allowing vocalists to improvise in the style of a musical instrument. Trumpeter Louis Armstrong is rumored to have invented scat when he dropped his lyric sheet during a performance, but bandleader Jelly Roll Morton contested this claim, citing comedian Joe Sims as the first man who ever did a scat number in the history of this country.

In the pocket

When a tune is really grooving and everyone in the room feels the beat in their bones, or when a jazz musician falls into a rhythm like he's falling into his mother's arms, you can say he's in the pocket. The term refers to a unified understanding of rhythmic time among musicians. Though there is little etymological evidence, Freddie Green's 1956 composition "Corner Pocket" has led many to believe that the term originated in pool playing vernacular, as in "I'm going to sink the eight ball in the corner pocket."

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