How did jazz musicians end up with all those nicknames?
‘Old Blue Eyes’. ‘The Queen of Soul’. ‘Muddy Waters’. ‘The King’. Nicknames are an integral part of the history of popular music in the United States. They not only lend musicians a distinctive identity, but they also serve to create a sense of familiarity between musician and listener. Nicknames connect audiences to performers who, on stage or on record, might otherwise seem a world away. And while nicknames are present across musical genres, I would argue that no genre, with the exceptions of the blues and hip hop, is more prominently marked by nicknames than jazz.
Literally hundreds of jazz musicians have adopted nicknames as components of their public personae. Familiar nicknames (‘Buddy’, ‘Buster’, ‘Sonny’) are a dime a dozen in the history of jazz, and reinforce the notion that the practice of assigning nicknames has much to do with establishing an informal intimacy between artists and their audiences. More interesting, however, are the names that performers were granted, or took on, in order to play up particular personal characteristics. As might be expected, origin stories for these kinds of nicknames are rarely clear, and more often than not they’re a product of pure speculation. Though I love saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’s nickname, I have to come to terms with the fact that I may never know exactly where that great name came from. Still, there are several musicians whose nickname trajectories are clear, or, at the very least, make sense to the casual fan. These nicknames fall into fairly discrete categories, some of which I will describe below.
Anatomy and personality traits
For my money, the most playful nicknames in jazz are the products of descriptions of performers’ anatomy. Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson was forced to shave his head after an unfortunate hair straightening accident and earned a nickname that stuck with him for the rest of his life. Louis Armstrong’s (presumably) large mouth inspired the cumbersome nickname ‘Satchel Mouth’, which eventually morphed into the punchier, more familiar ‘Satchmo’. And of course there are several nicknames, too many to discuss in detail, that call out musicians’ general body shapes: ‘Slim’ Gaillard, ‘Long Tall’ Dexter Gordon, Milton ‘Shorty’ Rogers, ‘Fats’ Navarro, ‘Fats’ Waller, ‘Chubby’ Jackson, ‘Tiny’ Hill (employed sarcastically), and the list goes on.
Personality traits and behaviors were also at the root of several of jazz’s great nicknames. ‘Cannonball’ Adderley’s nickname might evoke speed, power, and energy, but it’s actually a transformation of his earlier high school nickname ‘Cannibal’, which he earned thanks to his hearty appetite. A number of other prominent performers were also characterized by their playing style, stage presence, or general demeanor, e.g. ‘Wild’ Bill Davis, ‘Dizzy’ Gillespie, and Charles Mingus, the ‘Angry Man of Jazz’.
Performers as royalty
A separate, yet equally distinct, strand of jazz nicknames is the practice of describing performers as some sort of royalty. ‘Duke’ Ellington might be the most well-known member of jazz royalty, but several other artists took on titles at various points in their careers. ‘Pharaoh’ Sanders received his nickname as a young man and for a fairly straightforward reason: ‘Pharaoh’ sounds a lot like his birth name, Farrell. ‘Count’ Basie, in a bit of self-aggrandizement, chose his stage name in order to insert himself in a lineage of other royal-sounding performers, including Earl Hines, King Oliver, Baron Lee, and, of course, Duke Ellington. Sir Roland Hanna, on the other hand, came by his title honestly: he was knighted by the Liberian government in 1970.
As I researched and wrote this article, I was struck by the historical tone that it began to take on. Considering the hundreds of nicknamed jazz musicians who took to the world’s stages during the 20th century, the dearth of nicknames among up-and-coming artists is rather striking. Has something changed in the way in which performers relate to their audiences? Has a certain familiarity been lost? Do jazz musicians, or their listeners, take the music too seriously? Has the use of nicknames in English declined more generally in recent years? (This is unlikely. Just ask JLaw, Megatron, or the Google Books Ngram Viewer, which suggests that the usage frequency of the word ‘nickname’ has steadily increased in recent years.) Amid disturbing reports that jazz is now the least popular musical genre in the US, I cannot help but wonder: can listeners even be bothered to come up with nicknames for their favorite artists anymore?
The end of an era?
Trombone Shorty and Boney James are younger artists who continue the tradition, but they are members of a rapidly vanishing group of nicknamed jazz performers. Perhaps we’re witnessing the end of an era: in the current landscape of popular music, it seems that there may no longer be the critical mass of listener enthusiasm and popular agreement that led to the establishment of so many nicknames decades ago. Given the smaller community of jazz artists, could it be the case that jazz artists no longer require nicknames to distinguish themselves from their peers or to cement their identities in the public eye? Dedicated jazz fans these days will probably manage to connect with their favorite artists, nickname or not.
I, however, am not prepared to allow this storied tradition to fade away just yet. I recently came across an article on Colin Stetson, one of my favorite contemporary sax players, in which the Toronto Standard author decides to make up a nickname for Stetson, ‘The Stets’. The nickname also pops up a couple of years later elsewhere. If nicknames require some form of consensus before they’ll stick, I’m joining the ‘Stets’ bandwagon. Let’s not see the nickname die on our watch, jazz fans.