Why did jazz musicians start referring to an engagement as a "gig"?

If any, could anyone provide a couple of quotations from eminent authors to show where a word was first used in this sense?

gig | noun, a live performance by a musician or group playing popular or jazz music. | verb, perform a gig or gigs.

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    – MetaEd
    Oct 1 '13 at 17:24
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    You may find this discussion interesting.
    – Lumberjack
    Oct 1 '13 at 18:05
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    The question sited asked for a definition of the word, not its origin.
    – Lumberjack
    Oct 1 '13 at 18:09
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    You and I don't know the origin, but that doesn't mean that it is an unfathomable mystery. Lets give people a chance to answer before we decide there is no answer.
    – Lumberjack
    Oct 1 '13 at 18:20
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    @Lumberjack: In the remote eventuality that someone really knows, they'd probably contact OED, not ELU. All we'll get here is idle speculation. Oct 1 '13 at 19:59

The OED says the origin of gig is unknown.

Here's the full entry in A Jazz Lexicon (1964) by Robert S. Gold, which offers a possible etymology and some early quotations (with extra formatting for readability).

gig, n. [poss. from gigue, a lively dance form of Italian origin commonly used as the last movement of a suite (cf. English counterpart jig): from Old French giguer; according to jazzman Eubie Blake, bandleader James Reese Europe used the term in its jazz sense as early as c. 1905; widely current since c. 1920] Initially, see 1955 quot.; since c. 1955, see 1959 quot. (though, it should be noted, for the non-jazz job, the term is applied only to a non-jazzman; for the jazzman, the non-jazz job is a hame or a day gig, q.v. ).

— 1926 Melody Maker, Sep., p. 7. One popular "gig" band makes use of a nicely printed booklet.

—1931 Melody Maker, May, p. 369. Bill Henry and his orchestra were responsible for the undoubted success of half the local gigs.

—1946 Really the Blues, p. 370. gig: single engagement, club date.

—1955 The Encyclopedia of Jazz, p. 346. gig: job (esp. one-night stand).

—1959 The Holy Barbarians, p. 89. He returned to the bass fiddle and started making night club gigs again.

—1959 Newport Jazz Festival: 1959, p. 45. gig: a job of any kind, musical or non-.

  • I wonder whether any source addresses the issue of why "gig" would be pronounced with /g/ at the start (as I think it generally is in English) if it came from gigue, which is pronounced with a "soft g" at the start.
    – herisson
    Jul 7 '19 at 18:51

The first documented use of the term "gig" in this way appears in 1926: Melody Maker 7 September 1926, with the story byline stating, "One Popular Gig Band Makes Use of a Nicely Printed Booklet." [1]

As discussed at the link cited, some jazz historians believe that the term originated from a dance called a "gigue," while others believe that the term derived from carriages called "gigs" in New Orleans. The thought is that black musicians, in order to avoid being arrested for playing on the street would instead play jazz on the back of carriages or trucks.

The latter explanation has some support from popular culture. Richard Digance on UK TV Channel 4's Countdown is widely quoted as forwarding the notion that the term derives from black musicians in New Orleans as stated above.

  • Neither of these explanations seem likely to me. Oct 30 '15 at 10:35

I'm not sure what to make of the following lengthy slang history of gig from Harold Wentworth & Stuart Flexner, Dictionary of American Slang (1960), but it's certainly interesting and unexpected:

gig n. 1 A child's pacifier or any object, as a cloth square, spoon, or the like, used as a toy; any object to which a small child is attached and with which he likes to play; any object treated by a child as a fetish; a gigi or ju-ju. Orig. Negro slave and Southern use. From "gigi," the word is very well known to about 35% of the population, unheard of by the rest. 2 [sometimes taboo] The rectum. From "gigi." Used euphem. by some children, as part of their bathroom vocabulary, but not common to all children. Used by some male adults [taboo] as a euphem. for "ass" in such expressions as "up your gig." 3 [taboo] The vagina. From "gigi." Not common. Prob. Southern use. 4 A party, a good time; esp. an uninhibited party; occasionally but not often, an amorous session, necking party, or even a sexual orgy between a man and a woman. c1915 [1954]: "Cornet players used to pawn their instruments when there was a lull in funerals, parades, dances, gigs and picnics." L. Armstrong, Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans, 100. 1958: "Life is a Many Splendored Gig," a song title. 5 A jam session ; a jazz party or gathering of jazz musicians or enthusiasts. Orig. swing use. 1920 [1954]: "Kid Ory had some of the finest gigs, especially for the rich white folk." L. Armstrong, Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans, 141. 6 Specif., an engagement or job for a jazz musician or musicians, esp. for a one-night engagement. 1950: "If I ask you to go out on a gig, it's thirty-five or forty dollars for that night." A. Lomax, Mr. Jelly Roll, 204. 1954: "On a gig, or one night stand." L. Armstrong, Satchmo, My Life in New Orleans, 221. 7 Something, as a jazz arrangement, that is satisfying or seems perfect. Orig. swing use. 8 A fishing spear; a pronged fork as used for catching fish, frogs, and the like. 1946: [citation omitted]. 9 An unfavorable report; a demerit; a reprimand. Army and some student use since c1940. The relations, if, any, between a child's pacifier or fetish, the rectum and vagina, a party, a sex orgy, jazz music, a pronged fork, and a reprimand are most interesting, and lie in the field of psychology rather than of etymology.

The second edition of Wentworth & Flexner (1975) repeats this definition word for word, but the the third edition, which is essentially a completely new book, cuts back on the early definitions. From Robert Chapman & Barbara Kipfer, Dictionary of American Slang, third edition (1995):

gig 1 n jazz musicians by about 1915 A party for jazz musicians and devotees; =JAM SESSION [citation (the Kid Ory quote again) omitted] 2 n jazz musicians by about 1905 A playing date or engagement, esp a one-night job [citations omitted] 3 v [citation omitted] 4 n 1950s Any job or occupation [citations omitted] 5 n A criminal act; swindle; =JOB, SCAM [citations omitted] 6 n Armed forces by 1940s A demerit; report of deficiency or breach of rules [origin unknown; musicians' senses are extensions of earlier meanings "spree, dance, party," found by 1777]

  • I don't see the relevance or utility for such a lengthy copy & paste answer. Especially the first citation, from what I can gather definitions 1-4 are unrelated to a live performance in a theatre or hall and are practically obsolete terms. Does the last sentence belong to you or is it still part of the citation? (I say copy & paste but I do realize a lot of time is spent in formatting that citation). I just think it doesn't really answer the question. "If any, could anyone provide a couple of quotations from eminent authors to show where a word was first used in this sense" ?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 27 '14 at 6:42
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    @Mari-Lou A: The final italicized comment is part of the entry in Wentworth & Flexner. I think that the authors meant to suggest that all of the nine definitions of gig that they provided ultimately derive from the same root: gigi (of African origin), derived from the Gullah "gri-gri" and referring (the authors say in their entry for "gigi, gi-gi, gee-gee") to "the doll-like image used in voodoo rituals." To me the big jump is between the first three meanings and the fourth; I have no trouble seeing the party meaning evolving into an entertainment meaning.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 27 '14 at 7:22
  • Anyway, to give the authors' conclusion its full contextual impact, I felt that I should include all nine definitions. But maybe that was a bad call.
    – Sven Yargs
    Nov 27 '14 at 7:23
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    I included the 4th definition because of its time stamp: c1915, which is after Hugo's OED citation c. 1905. I feel it makes sense that the two, a party and a live performance came hand in hand. Only the second has remained (I think!).
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 27 '14 at 7:28

The term "gig" was explained to me back in about 1976 by my piano teacher. He was an extraordinary jazz pianist. He played on the Mike Douglas show in Philadelphia as one of his gigs. His explanation was that in the 30's and 40's musicians of color were not always paid for their talents. Keep in mind that many of these musicians understood and gave credence to their roots of understand that God was real. Most were brought up in a faith that was greater than their own understanding, far, far beyond black or white. These musicians were unfairly treated, yet when they were paid for the talents, they simply said "God is Good" a GIG.

I am now a 58 year old piano player and this explanation makes the most sense of anything I have ever heard.

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    Please add verifiable sources to support your answer, especially since your answer conflicts with another answer citing the OED.
    – JJJ
    Apr 8 '18 at 3:34
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    I really can't add another source. He played with so many musicians, in so many different environments. He passed away a few years ago, so of course, I have no way of asking him again. He was a very reputable man and not one for making up stories. Despite what the OED says, I think they got this one wrong. Given the culture during those times, it's not hard to believe they would not want to identify this term in the real way it was used. I understand if you need to delete my comment. But this is the definition I will be using the rest of my life. For all the gigs I have left to play. Apr 8 '18 at 20:56
  • I see, I mistakenly said definition in the OED. After reading the other answer again it's actually another book, the OED does not list an origin. I'll give you an upvote anyway because it seems like a reasonable explanation (even though it lacks verifiable evidence). Perhaps someone else can corroborate this, either by adding a comment or even link to some piece of writing.
    – JJJ
    Apr 8 '18 at 21:05

The two suggestions that make the most sense to me (unless you count "obscure" as a suggestion) are the German Geig, violin, or Old French gigue, dance.


according to some new orleans musicians the term GIG originates from when they started earning enough money to go out and buy a gig, which is a type of small carriage. [this is pre automobile] and went out to" play on their gig", which would have been a bit of a boast ! check it out !

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    this answer has already been suggested by Lumberjack. Please provide some external support for your answer, otherwise it risks deletion.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30 '15 at 10:11
  • @Mari-LouA Are the similar/same answers deleted too? I am currently reviewing first posts and late answers but I don't see any option apart from flagging or editing it. Oct 30 '15 at 10:23
  • @JonyAgarwal I gave a link to the uplicate answer, so it's not deleted. There are no deleted posts/answers on this question as of today. The other available option is to leave it be. How would someone edit this? This answer needs a reference or "any" external support. I'm not doing someone else's work :) By the way, I didn't flag this post. I only flag posts which are either offensive or spam.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30 '15 at 11:15

Are we looking at the wrong continent?

All the early citations seem to be from England. Melody Maker was a music journal that was published in London, and S.R. Nelson's All About Jazz was published in the U.K. It was not uncommon for black jazz musicians to tour Europe in the 1920s, and they could have brought back the word.

— 1926 Melody Maker, Sep., p. 7. One popular "gig" band makes use of a nicely printed booklet.

— 1927 Melody Maker, May, This seven-piece combination does many ‘GIGS’ in S.E. London, but is hoping to secure a resident engagement at Leamington in the near future.

— 1931 Melody Maker, May, p. 369. Bill Henry and his orchestra were responsible for the undoubted success of half the local gigs.

— 1934 S. R. Nelson All about Jazz vi. 113 Jack runs numerous bands which play ‘gig’ work—i.e. private engagements or public work. In his office, he has a file in which some hundreds of ‘gig’ musicians are listed.

The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1903) has the definition

gig 4 Sport; fun; lively time [Prov. Eng.]

One can imagine that this turned into a word for a party, which then turned into the musician's meaning for "gig". But this seems quite hard to verify.

  • And the reason British or/and non, jazz musicians adopted the term gig is...? The term might have British origins doesn't say much.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30 '15 at 19:43
  • I added my best guess, but it's not that convincing. Oct 30 '15 at 22:20
  • Well...it's not that bad actually.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 30 '15 at 22:23

It could well have a source in the word jig

1.Music and Dancea rapid, lively, springy, irregular dance for one or more persons.

2.Music and Dancea piece of music for such a dance. 

3.Music and Dance[no object] to dance a jig or any lively dance.*

This is a music with a connotation of being live, and as a show, and is dated from the 16th century


Short for engagement (notice the two g's)

  • 4
    Plausible, surely; but you need some external authority or evidence to back it up. After all, gauge and wiggle also have two gs.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 26 '14 at 22:38
  • But it's a goog guess. Oops good.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 27 '14 at 6:39

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