Preview to the Jazz Party column: What’s in a (nick)name?
VAIL CO, Colorado
Jazz players have competed for recognition since the beginning of the art form, and what better way to distinguish yourself from other musicians than to adopt a unique nickname that could be added to your billing?
Initially, nicknames were given to musicians by their fans and were early attempts by promoters to create publicity for shows. Buddy Bolden was known as the “king” of the cornet, but when his rival began using the royal designation as part of his name, Joe “King” Oliver, it was clear that other supreme rulers would soon follow. Paul Whiteman, the King of Jazz, Benny Goodman, the King of Swing, and his rival, Artie Shaw was the King of the Clarinet. Later, Nat “King” Cole appeared on the scene and ultimately, Clarence Beeks, an eccentric jazz singer, gained some fame in the 1950s as “King Pleasure.”
With so many kings reigning at one time, the rest of the royal court was quickly filled with a Duke (Ellington) and a Count (Basie) as well as the band called Dukes of Dixieland, credited with recording the first jazz record. So as not to forget the democratic roots of jazz, Lester Young was elected president, (shortened to “prez”) and Eugene Wright was known as “The Senator.” The animal kingdom was represented by Willie “The Lion” Smith, an assortment of “Tigers” and other exotic creatures.
But even in the male dominated world of jazz, women ascended to the highest levels and possessed equally descriptive nicknames: Empress (Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues); The First Lady (Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song); Lady Day (Billie Holiday); the Divine One (Sarah Vaughn); the Queen (Peggy Lee); and the High Priestess of Soul (Nina Simone).
Nicknames have not always been complimentary and there were plenty of players tagged with Baby, Junior, Shorty, Sonny, Kid, Tubby, Fats, Tiny, Skinny and other equally descriptive terms. In many cases, it became even more personal: David “Fathead” Newman; Milt “Bags” Jackson (referred to bags under his eyes); Ben “Frog” Webster (because of bulging eyes); and John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie (because of his clownish behavior).
Julian Edwin Adderley got the nickname “Cannibal” due to his large appetite, but the name became corrupted and he was soon known as “Cannonball.” Charlie Parker earned the nickname “Yardbird” (shortened to Bird) because of a story where he once asked a friend to stop the car so he could pick up a chicken that had been run over. He later served it for dinner. Louis Armstrong was originally called “Sachel Mouth” and “Dipper Mouth,” not so kind references to the size of his mouth. Fortunately as Louis’ fame grew, his nickname was shorten to “Satchmo” and later, he much more affectionately became known as “Pops.”
Each year as part of the Vail Jazz Festival, we present the Labor Day Weekend Jazz Party where we pay tribute to many of these great jazz musicians that have made such important contributions to music. This year, we honor one of the most important trumpet players of all time, “Dizzy” Gillespie, in a multimedia tribute featuring classic video, live performance and narrative.
Howard Stone is the founder and artistic director of the Vail Jazz Foundation, which produces the annual Vail Jazz Festival. Now in its 18th year, the Vail Jazz Festival is a summer-long celebration of jazz music. The Festival culminates with the Labor Day Weekend Vail Jazz Party. Visit vailjazz.org for more.
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