Tom “Red” Brown (1888-1958)

Tom Brown
Tom Brown

The trombonist Tom Brown (not to be confused with the mandolin player with the same name) is a key historical figure in jazz for his popularization of the word jass, which gave rise to jazz, and the naming of a new musical genre.

Tom Brown started his trombone-playing career under the tutelage of Papa Laine’s Reliance Brass Band. He later started his own Dixieland band, and as early as 1913, the group had offers to go north to Chicago.1 It wasn’t until 1915 that the band did go to Chicago, making it one of the first Dixieland bands to move away from New Orleans. In that year Brown’s band played a successful engagement at Lamb’s Café, originally under the name Brown’s Dixieland Band. The musician’s union in Chicago did not appreciate having an out of town band performing within the city, especially one playing this new Dixieland music. In an attempted to denigrate the band, the union used the term jass to describe them. The word “jass” had sexual connotations, and particularly with prostitution. The union’s plan backfired, and Brown began advertising his group as Tom Brown’s Dixieland Jass Band, to increased popularity. The term “jass” from that point on was used to refer to the New Orleans collective improvisational style, and was latter turned into jazz to describe the musical genre in general. After the success of the word jass, other bands that left New Orleans adopted its use in their own name.

  1. James Lincoln Collier, Jazz: The American Theme Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 94.