Writer's note: Being the Utah Jazz beat writer for the Deseret News was my identity for almost a decade from 2008 to 2017. It was a source of deep pride on personal and professional levels — for me and for others, especially my mom. This franchise has had a lot of colorful characters and interesting moments, and I had the honor to tell and retell stories about a team that means so much to the people and a state I love so much. The following excerpt from my book, 100 Things Jazz Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die, is presented with permission from Triumph Books.
Chapter 19: The Jazz Nickname
For years, a group of clever and boisterous New Orleans fans chanted, “There ain’t no jazz in Utah” when the franchise returned to play in its city of origin. It was a funny jab. To their point, nobody would argue that there’s as much jazz in Salt Lake City as the French Quarter offers. And, let’s be real, the Utah Osmonds or Utah Mormon Tabernacle Choir weren’t great options even if more fitting.
The Jazz nickname was far from being a clear-cut choice in 1974 when the NBA awarded New Orleans an expansion team. That spring, a naming contest was held, and more than 6,500 names were submitted, but only three contestants entered the Jazz name. The eight semifinalists: Blues, Cajuns, Crescents, Deltas, Dukes, Jazz, Knights and Pilots. Jazz emerged as the winner after deliberation, and the city known for being the undisputed “jazz capital of the world” embraced the name. As the team’s media guide still notes, this was the second time Jazz had been born in New Orleans. “Jazz is one of those things, for which New Orleans is nationally famous and locally proud,” co-owner Fred Rosenfeld said at the time. “It is a great art form, which belongs to New Orleans and its rich history.”
The purple, gold and green Mardi Gras color scheme and musical J-Note logo added to the symmetry of the selection. Unfortunately for New Orleans, Jazz looked — and sounded — a lot better than the team actually played basketball. Five years after it debuted, this Jazz show hit the road.
Another contest was held in Utah after owners Sam Battistone and Larry Hatfield relocated the franchise to a place that was home to a completely different brand of Saints, which, of course, was one of the top suggestions for a rebranding. New Orleans’ NFL team might have had something to say about that. Other submissions included the Stars — to carry on the defunct ABA team’s success in Utah — as well as Bees, Crickets, and, of course, Briny Shrimp. “But once the contest was over, Battistone concluded that none of them sounded better than Jazz,” Deseret News columnist Brad Rock wrote. “That was his story, and he was sticking with it. So what if Utahns didn’t know Count Basie from Count Chocula.”
This topic has come up several times over the years — from those early debates about whether the franchise should pick a name with local ties, then again in 2002 when the Charlotte Hornets relocated to New Orleans, and most recently in 2012 when owner Tom Benson decided to give his team a new identity more reflective of Louisiana than a flying pest. Benson openly lobbied for Utah to return the Jazz name. He even pleaded with NBA commissioner David Stern to help facilitate the request. Stern awarded the city the 2014 NBA All-Star Game, but made it clear the city would have to find a less jazzy nickname. “It belongs to Utah,” Stern told NOLA.com. “I wouldn’t make it such an important point. There are many things that are indigenous to the area. I’m sure there will be some wonderful nicknames.”
Jazz CEO Greg Miller weighed in via his blog: “The window of opportunity to change our name closed shortly after we moved to Utah from NOLA. We are Utah Jazz. And we always will be.”
New Orleans went with the state bird, Pelicans, over fellow finalists Mosquitoes, Rougarou, Swamp Dogs, and Bull Sharks. Louisiana native Karl Malone expressed his gratitude for Benson keeping the team in New Orleans but admitted the name didn’t come off the tongue very easily. “It took me a while to say Pelicans. It had to grow on me.”
The same thing happened in Utah after the Jazz arrived in a relocation process that didn’t allow for an immediate name change. The organization got serious about it in 1983 when Jay Francis, now a Larry H. Miller Group executive vice president, helped conduct market research that revealed how fans just weren’t connecting with the Jazz name, colors, and logo that all screamed New Orleans, but not Utah. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, the Jazz brass let the league know they wanted to change the name and logo. That plan was thwarted by the success of the 1983–84 team, though. Suddenly, the Utah Jazz and their merchandise were as popular as Neil Diamond’s “The Jazz Singer” and as hot as jazzercise workouts. “For the first time when I traveled,” Francis told Trib writer Aaron Falk, “people didn’t ask me if I was with a musical group.”
Although you can reasonably argue that the organization should’ve changed when it arrived in Utah, the Jazz and their fun J-Note logo have continued to strike a chord with Utahns ever since. This Jazz harmoniously blends together athletes and residents from a wide variety of ethnicities, religions, races, and backgrounds and provides a pulsating beat that helps move the community forward through good times and bad.
Those chanting New Orleans fans, understandably miffed that their perfectly fitted name and team left in 1979, have a point if they’re comparing the amount of jazz in the Big Easy to the availability of that style of music in Salt Lake City. But there most definitely is Jazz in Utah now.
Just as the Lakers’ nickname has taken hold in an area with far fewer than the 10,000 lakes in its first home (Minnesota), the seemingly misappropriated New Orleans-created nickname now has deep roots in a place settled by religious pioneers. There might not have been some jazz in Utah back in the 1970s, but there certainly is now, and the Jazz in Utah have become an integral part of the community’s identity — even if the name sounds like an oxymoron.
For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/100jazz. Also available at Amazon.com_, Barnes & Noble stores and_ barnesandnoble.com_, Utah Costcos and the_ King's English Bookshop in Salt Lake City (signed copies).