Duke Ellington and members of his band play baseball during a 1955 tour
Tomorrow is opening day of the 2017 baseball season. The first day of major league baseball always provokes simultaneous thoughts of renewal and nostalgia – the return of sunshine (at last!) and an optimistic spirit is coupled with the thoughts of days gone by, when the likes of Mays and Mantle and Aaron roamed the outfield and Ellington and Armstrong and Miles set the rhythm of our culture.
Baseball and jazz are well connected, as theorized by trombonist Alan Ferber, who wrote that “baseball players and jazz musicians both strive for a perfect balance between disciplined practice and spontaneity.” They also shared the spotlight in popular culture, when baseball was known as “America’s pastime,” jazz was its popular music.
As the season begins, there are two terrific essays to point you to:
- “The sound emanating from the crack of the bat is as well-loved as the long, soulful wail of a tenor saxophone,” The Smithsonian’s John Edward Hasse wrote in an April 1, 2014 essay on the connections of jazz and baseball, and how the game was popular with jazz musicians. The page also includes some nice photos and a wonderful short film of Duke Ellington playing baseball. Click here to view it.
- On the Oxford Dictionary website, Dave Wilton writes about baseball’s role in the origination of the word “jazz.” “There are a lot of stories about the origin of the word jazz, most amounting to no more than speculation asserted as fact. But we now know that jazz started out as an early-20th century baseball term for ‘pep, energy’ before it became the name for the new syncopated musical style.” To read Wilton’s April, 2015 piece, click here.
Louis Armstrong’s Secret 9 baseball team, New Orleans, 1931
Some jazz songs about baseball
Les Brown & His Band of Renown: “Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio” (1941)
Count Basie: “Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?” (1949)
Mabel Scott: “Baseball Boogie” (1950)
Jane Morgan: “Baseball Baseball” (1954)
Treniers: “Say Hey (The Willie Mays Song)” (1955)
Nat King Cole: “The First Baseball Game” (1961)
Frank Sinatra: “There Used to Be a Ballpark” (1973)
Teresa Brewer (with Mickey Mantle): “I Love Mickey” (1956)
Modern Jazz Quartet: “Baseball” (1975)