The Location of Jazz Nation

April 14th, 2012 | by Evan Hall

There’s a dichotomy, used in linguistics and in literary criticism, used to describe the relationship between words and their referents. The word we speak or write for referent is called “the signifier” while referent itself (the meaning of the word) is called “the signified.” For example, when I say the word “tree” to you, I’m using a symbolic formation of letters to refer you to the idea of a tree. I say the word, and you picture in your mind that tree. The word that I say has no inherent connection to a tree itself. It’s completely arbitrary. When I say “tree” to an English speaker, they will have a mental image of a tree similar to the mental image of a tree that a Spanish speaker would have if I were to use the Spanish verbal symbol for tree: “árbol.” That’s why if you went to elementary school with a dim-witted bully named Jerry (or if you watch Parks and Rec), you likely will not name one of your children Jerry. For you, the signified of Jerry is distasteful, and you don’t want that same signifier to be used for your newborn baby.

Typically, when we make associations with words, they hark back to the same mental referents. This is often not the case for proper nouns, like the name “Jerry.” Because they refer to specific entities in reality, proper nouns often carry loaded associations. In the case of professional sports teams, every baseball fan feels some connotation accompanying the proper noun “Yankees.” Thus, “Lakers” as a signifier has come to refer to a professional sports team that, depending on your loyalties, embodies either the totality of human evil as we know it, or the pinnacle of accomplishment in a sports organization. Even as a person who maintains a position closer to the former connotation than the latter, I would still not want the Lakers to change their name. After all, my signifier is already applied and functioning within my vocabulary. Why change it?

The same is true for the Utah Jazz. Now, the argument for changing the name for Utah’s professional basketball team is that it is nonsensical. After all, the word Jazz typically refers to a genre of music that emerged in New Orleans, and when the name of the team was conceived, it was conceived with that connection in mind. Then the team moved to Utah, the name stayed with it, and suddenly we have a team name with no apparent association with its location. Nonsensical, right?

Perhaps in the immediate aftermath of the relocation of the team, the decision to keep the name was nonsensical. But now, nonsensical would be to alter the present vocabulary of the NBA. To any NBA fan in the world, the word “Jazz” refers to a particular team located in Utah, not to Miles Davis’s art form. Within the context of the NBA, the signified of the word “Jazz” is the Utah Jazz–the team built by Jerry, John and Karl. The team with the tragic luck of reaching its peak during the Jordan era. The team that brought us Greg Ostertag. When Jordan pushed off on Russell (and he did push off), there was not a single person watching that game that considered the word “Jazz” emblazoned across Bryon Russell’s jersey a misnomer. It was the signifier for a collection of players about to have their heart broken.

This remains the case. The signifier “Jazz” still refers to Utah’s team, and maybe it doesn’t make sense to anyone only casually associated with the team, but it makes sense to those of us who have always heard the word “Jazz” and thought of our favorite basketball team. There is an entire construct of feelings and ideas associated with the team’s name, and the truly senseless act would be to erase those associations with a name change. While I acknowledge New Orleans contribution to the landscape of American music, I respectfully assert that the name of Utah’s NBA team matters far more to Jazz fans than it does to jazz fans. The borders of Jazz nation have long since changed.

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