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Jazz Humor

Jazz Nicknames

By Published: March 4, 2004
Slang is definitely cool, but other non-musical aspects, like nicknames, have created a certain allure or attraction to Jazz, too. Nicknames, especially the stories behind them, are fun, sometimes funny, and other times fascinating.

The immortal Louis Armstrong had at least three of them. Even before jazz was officially a musical form, forerunners of it, such as Charles "Buddy" Bolden, had nicknames. In fact, it seems that the bigger the artist, the quicker he or she gained a nickname.

This list contains a few of those nicknames; if you know of any others or can expand upon the reasons for a given nickname, please send them to us.

Adderley, Julian Edwin --- Cannonball

Actually, Adderley's original nickname was "Cannibal" because of his eating habits. "Cannonball" is merely a bastardization of "Cannibal" and is still a good fit.

Ammons, Gene --- Jug

Not sure why the tenor saxophonist was called "Jug." If you know the source of this nickname, please let us know. A reader says that Gene was called "Jug" because he could drink anyone under the table.

Armstrong, Louis --- Dipper Mouth, Satchel Mouth, Satchmo, Gate

King Oliver and other early jazz musicians called Louis "Dipper Mouth" or "Satchel Mouth," presumably because of his large mouth. Early in the thirties, Louis visited England and was given his trademark handle "Satchmo" when British fans heard the "Satchel Mouth" tag incorrectly. Billie Holiday called him "Pops." Gate was also used to designate Armstrong at some point.

According to Louis' own book "Satchmo, My Life In New Orleans" reprinted by Ace Books in 1957 (originally published 1955), "Dipper...(that was my nickname—short for Dippermouth, from the piece called Dippermouth Blues)." It would appear that the name was given to him after the tune which he evidently liked when he was very young. -Bruce Barnett

Baker, Chesney H. --- Chet

Chet was probably just a derivation of the Cool trumpeter's first name. If his parents didn't bestow this nickname on Chet, he probably did himself at an early age.

Basie, William --- Count

In his autobiography, "Good Morning Blues," he writes that he wanted to become part of the "jazz royalty of the time"—among them Duke Ellington, King Oliver, Earl Hines and Baron Lee—so he took the name 'Count.' This was in the late 1920s.

Beiderbecke, Leon --- Bix

As an astute reader puts it, "Bix's real name was Leon Bismarck Beiderbecke. That is well documented in the Bix Beiderbecke "bible" by Sudhalter et al: "Bix—man and legend." In that book there is a discussion of several pages and a photo of his death attest, where his real name is written.

The name Bismarck came from his father, who somethimes was named Bix, perhaps that's the reason why Bix was christianed Bix."

Berry, Leon --- Chu

Chu Berry resembled a character from a musical called "Chu Chin Chow."

Bertholoff, William Henry Joseph Berthol Bonaparte --- Willie "the Lion" Smith

Willie Smith was probably used to shorten the extremely long name. "The Lion" was bestowed because of Willie's forceful manner.

Or, as another reader puts it: he was called "The Lion" because of his devotion to Israel.

Blakey, Art --- Bu

Art Blakey was sometimes called "Bu," which was short for his Muslim name, Abdullah Ibn Buhaina.

Bolden, Charles --- Buddy

"Buddy" Bolden was reputed to be the first Jazz cornetist. If you know where this nickname came from, let us know.

Breitenfeld, Paul --- Paul Desmond

Desmond reportedly picked his name out of a phone book.

Brown, Clarence --- Gatemouth

Gatemouth was obviously derived from "Gator" mouth. "Alligator" was what jazz musicians called each other prior to adopting to "cat." "Hey Gate!" was a common salutation.

Brown, Clifford --- Brownie .


It is no great mystery why Clifford Brown was called "Brownie."

Byrd, Henry Roeland --- Professor Longhair, Fess, Roy

Not sure why this colorful New Orleans pre-rock pianist was called "Professor Longhair." "Fess" was a shortened form of "Professor Longhair" and "Roy" probably came from Roeland.

Clayton, Wilbur --- Buck

Clayton's nickname was given to him by his mother in reference to his African American ancestors according to a reader.

Coltrane, John --- Trane

Coltrane's nickname, "Trane," was a shortening of his last name.

Davis, Eddie --- Lockjaw

It is rumoured that Eddie was heavily "endowed." Possibly he caused a few cases of "Lockjaw" amongst his admirers?

Davis recorded a few titles named after more or less incommodating diseases in the late 1940's. "Lockjaw" was later shortened to "Jaws." -Dirk Ludigkeit

Davis, Miles --- The Prince of Darkness In reference to Davis' aloof brooding play on stage; it's often cited how he would turn his back to the audience.

Dodds, Warren --- Baby

New Orleans drummer Warren Dodds may have been called "Baby" because he was six years younger than his brother clarinetist Johnny Dodds.

Dorham, McKinley --- Kinny / Kenny

McKinley Dorham was originally nicknamed "Kinny" but this usually got misheard as Kenny. This is how it started to appear in record labels when he started recording. If you check lps he's on you can see the struggle over Kinny vs. Kenny. -Jonathan Fox

Edison, Harry --- Sweets

Trumpeter Edison was reputedly given the nickname "Sweets" by fellow Basie band member Lester Young. We're not sure why Lester called Harry "Sweets," but "The Pres" was notorious for bestowing nicknames.

I've recently read that Lester called Harry "Sweets" because Harry had a way with words and with music.

Eldridge, Roy --- Little Jazz

Trumpeter Eldridge received this nickname as a result of his diminutive size.

Ellington, Edward Kennedy --- Duke

The young Edward Ellington was called "Duke" by his friends and family because of his ducal manner and his natty dressing.

Evans, William --- Lateef, Yusef

Another Bill Evans. Sounds like a great trivia question!

Filipelli, Joseph Edward --- Flip Phillips

I suspect that Flip's nickname derived from his name.

Fitzgerald, Ella --- First Lady of Song

This was her nickname because she truly was the "First Lady of Song."

Gaillard, Bulee --- Slim

Not sure why this guitarist (a member of the popular "Slim and Slam" duo of the late thirties and the forties) was called "Slim." Was he thin? Let us know.

Gillespie, John Birks --- Dizzy

Gillespie acquired the nickname "Dizzy" early in his career because of his "off-the-wall" antics both onstage and off. During the bop period, while others were acting "cool," Gillespie was still acting "Dizzy" and very showman-like.

Gonsalves, Paul --- Mex

Ellington tenor saxophonist Gonsalves was mistakenly called "Mex" by some people who believed that this descendant of Cape Verdeans was Mexican.

Goodman, Benny --- King of Swing

Benny was called the "King of Swing" because of his tremendous success and fan following in much the same way that Elvis was dubbed the "King."

Green, Freddie --- Father Time

For the rock-solid beat he gave to the Count Basie band.

Green, Ian Ernest Gilmore --- Gil Evans

Gil once did an album named "Svengali." It had a credit line that said "Anagram by Gerry Mulligan." Svengali, of course, is GIl Evans, rearranged. It's the most original album credit in jazz, with the possible exception of Phil Woods's credit line that said "embouchure by" and then gave the name of his dentist.

Hampton, Locksley Wellington --- Slide

This trombone player, tuba player and composer from Indianapolis was probably called "Slide" because he played trombone at an early age.

Hanna, Roland— Sir Roland Hanna It's not a nickname; he came by his aristocraic title legitimately. After leading a benefit tour in Africa for young African students, he was knighted in 1970 by the late president of Liberia, William Tubman.

Hawkins, Coleman --- Bean, Hawk

The "Hawk" nickname is obviously a shortening of Hawkins. "Hawk" was also known as "Bean" but we don't know why. Do you? A reader says that the "Bean" tag was bestowed because of Hawkins intellect.

One of the Classics CD liner notes tells of one time in the late 30s, when Hawkins was playing in England as a featured player for the Jack Hilton (Hylton?) orchestra, and had been quoted, I guess in Melody Maker, claiming that a good player should be able to improvise in any key. The band members surrepticiously played a tune ONE HALF TONE lower, moving it from an easy sax key to a very tough one. Hawkins, coming in for his solo, realized what was going on almost instantly, delivered a respectable solo, and NEVER MENTIONED IT afterwards.

Here's another take on "Bean." The story is that some cats looked at hs eyes and said that they look like some beans after they had soaked in some water prior to cooking. Beans swell in standing water. Hence, his eyes look like swollen beans. I've heard this story on more than one occasion.

And how about this one?

Hawkins was called "Bean" because he came from Boston or "Beantown," as it was known. apparently, people in Boston use dto eat a lot of beans with brown bread.

Lester Young once called Hawkins "The First President." Although this is not technically a nickname, it is interesting and worth a mention.

Henderson, Fletcher --- Smack

Someone out there please tell us why this mild mannered bandleader was called "Smack." A reader suggests that "Smack" is slang for heroin and that Henderson's laid back manner earned him the nickname.

Another reader states he smacked his lips when he ate.

Herman, Woodrow Charles --- Woody

Bandleader Herman's nickname was obviously a derivation of his first name.

Hines, Earl --- Fatha

Earl acquired this nickname because of his kind temperament. Many musicians felt that they could confide in him and tell him their problems and personal feelings.

Quite aside from his undoubted value as a mentor, Hines was an old guy (in his forties in the forties) who wore a toupe. — Steve Danby

Hinton, Milt --- Judge

Because it fits his longevity, professional stature and the personal respect in which he is universally held.

Hodges, Johnny --- Jeep, Rabbit

Johnny Hodges was known as Jeep and Rabbit. Don't know the source of either. Another reader observes that Jeep came from the "Popeye" cartoon strip.

According to Harry Carney, Hodges was called Rabbit because he loved lettuce and tomato sandwiches. -Dirk Ludigkeit. Another reader suggests that "Rabbit" resulted from Hodges quick trips up to a room and back at brothels.

This is somewhat scatological, but I have it on the authority of a guy who used to house some of the Ellington band members when they came through Baltimore Way Back When that Johnny Hodges got the nickname Rabbit because when the boys would visit a house of ill-repute, Hodges would (to put it as nicely as I can) go upstairs and only minutes later would come back down.

Jackson, Milt --- Bags

Milt admitted that he got his nickname, Bags, from the temporary furrows under his eyes incurred by a drinking binge after his release from the Army.

Johnson, James Louis --- J.J. J.J. used to sign his compositions with only his first and last initials (i.e., [J]ames [J]ohnson). This eventually stuck as a nickname. However, it is no longer a nickname, as he had his name officially changed in 1970.

Jones, Joseph --- Philly Joe

Philadelphia drummer Philly Joe Jones was given this nickname to distinguish him from Basie drummer Jo Jones.

Kirnon, Conrad --- Connie Kay

At Birdland one night, em cee Pee Wee Marquette had trouble pronouncing Kirnon and simply introduced Connie Kay.

La Menthe, Ferdinand Joseph --- Jelly Roll Morton

Jelly Roll's father, F. P. La Menthe, left home early in Jelly's youth and his mother remarried to a man named Morton. Hence, the name Morton. The "Jelly Roll" portion of the nickname has sexual connotations, and comes from early in his career when he was a pimp and a hustler as well as a musician.

Lewis, Meade --- Lux

As a child, Meade "Lux" Lewis was called "The Duke of Luxembourg" from the comic strip "Alphonse and Gaston."

Professor Longhair & other "professors"


"Professor" or "Fess" was generally given to teachers / mentors. "Longhair" is what jazz musicians used to call classical music, because of the long hair of Paderewski & other male artists. But it also refers to someone who knows his stuff—a theorist or a great inventor. — Steve Danby

Massaro, Salvatore --- Eddie Lang, Blind Willie Dunn

Eddie Lang was probably just an attempt to Americanize. Blind Willie Dunn was an attempt to Bluesify (to coin a word).

McKay, Eleanor Gough --- Billie Holiday, Lady Day

Eleanor McKay was her legal name after her father left, but Eleanor took her father's last name and the nickname "Billie." We are not sure where the "Billie" handle came from. Her good friend, saxophonist Lester Young called her "Lady Day" because of his tremendous respect for her and because he thought her every inch a lady.

Miley, James --- Bubber

We're not sure why the Ellington trumpeter was called Bubber. If you know, let us.

Mulligan, Gerry --- Jeru

Gerry Mulligan's Jeru came from his name.

Nanton, Joseph --- Tricky Sam

Ellington trombonist Joe Nanton was nicknamed "Tricky Sam" by Otto Hardwicke. This nickname probably reflects Nanton's prowess as a trombonist and his ability to apply Bubber Miley's trumpet wa- wa effects to trombone. (Original entry.)

I can't remember who gave Nanton that nickname, but it was NOT because of his skill with the plunger mute. Nanton had perfected a technique of drinking on-stage without anyone noticing. - Dirk Ludigkeit

Navarro, Theodore --- Fats or Fat Girl

Bop trumpeter Navarro received the nickname "Fat Girl" because he was somewhat overweight and effeminate. "Fats" was derived from "Fat Girl."

As I understand it, Fats Navarro was called Fat Girl because he had a high-pitched voice, not because he was effeminate.

Newman, David --- Fathead

No, it wasn't because his head was fat. Saxophonist Newman was given this nickname by his music teacher after he fumbled an arpeggio.

Norvo, Red and Bailey, Mildred --- Mr. and Mrs. Swing

Even though "Red" is obviously a nickname, that is not what this entry is about. The nickname "Mr. and Mrs. Swing" is unique because it refers to more than one person. It was bestowed on Red and Mildred because there was no more swinging (in the music sense) couple than they were during their marriage.

Oliver, Joseph --- King

Oliver was dubbed "King" because he was literally the "King" of early New Orleans jazz cornet players.

Page, Oran --- Hot Lips

Trumpeter Oran Page was called the "Hot Lips" because of his hot Armstrong-like trumpet playing.

Parker, Charlie --- Bird, Yardbird

Early in his career, Charlie was dubbed "Yardbird" because of his love for chicken. The nickname stuck and was eventually shortened to "Bird." (Original entry.)

According to one version, he and his band (including employer Jay McShann) were driving to town when a chicken ran out into the road. Upon hitting the bird, Charlie got out, picked it up and took it all the way to their destination to get it cooked up. Hence, the musicians called him Yardbird, which was later shortened to "Yard" or "Bird."

Peterson, Oscar --- Josh

Powell, Earl --- Bud

Not sure why the Bop pianist was called "Bud." Let us know if you know why.

Prestopnk, Irving --- Irving Fazola

Irving Fazola took the name Fazola from the the notes Fa, So and La of the tonic scale. Thus, Fa- So-La or Fa-Zo-La.

Pridgett, Gertrude Melissa Nix --- Ma Rainey

In 1902 she married the song and dance man William "Pa" Rainey on stage she was billed as Ma Rainey. They had a minstrel act called Ma & Pa Rainey.

Reinhardt, Jean Baptiste --- Django

Not sure why the virtuoso guitarist was called "Django." If you know, let us know. A reader points out that "Django" is the Gypsy name for Jean.

Rogers, Milton M. --- Shorty (real name Milton Rajonsky)

I'm guessing that the trumpeter was called "Shorty" because of his stature.

Rollins, Theodore Walter --- Sonny, Newk

Not sure why Rollins was called "Sonny." He got the nickname "Newk" because of his resemblance to Dodgers' pitcher Don Newcombe.

Rushing, Jimmy --- Mister Five-by-Five

It was Jimmy's body build that caused people to call him "Mister Five-by-Five."

Sims, Jack --- Zoot

Sims became known as "Zoot" after he stood behind a music stand with the word zoot painted on it.

Sinatra, Frank --- Old Blue Eyes

Pop Jazz singer Sinatra was called "Old Blue Eyes" for obvious reasons.

Smith, Buster --- Professor

We're not sure why this alto saxophonist was called "professor," but we do know that he was one of Charlie Parker's mentor's. Maybe that's why.

Smith, Jimmy --- Cat

Smith, Leroy Gordon --- Stuff

The Jazz fiddle genius earned the nickname "Stuff" because he was bad with names and addressed people as "Hey, Stuff!"

Smith, Willie --- The Lion

The story usually attached to "the Lion" handle was that during World War One, when Smith was in the artillery, he stood by his gun through shot and shell and thus earned his nickname for his bravery. Whether any of this is true I cannot verify. -Jonathan Fox

Stewart, Leroy --- Slam

Not sure why this bassist (a member of the popular "Slim and Slam" duo of the late thirties and the forties) was called "Slam." If you know, let us know.

Strayhorn, Billy --- Sweetpea

Billy got this nickname from the famous "Popeye" cartoon strip. Otto Hardwicke may be responsible for bestowing it.

Or the appellation may have come from the fact that he was pretty openly gay, which was somewhat rare in those days (and circles).

Teagarden, Jack --- Big Gate

At one point in the history of Jazz, "gate" was synonymous with a Jazz musician. Thus, "Big Gate" was a good nickname for the trombonist.

Teagarden, Charlie --- Little Gate

Since Jack was "Big Gate," it was natural that Charlie should be called "Little Gate."

Torme, Mel --- The Velvet Fog

Singer Torme was given this nickname because of his velvety singing voice.

Trumbauer, Frank --- Tram

This clarinet playing straight man sidekick of Bix Beiderbecke was called "Tram" because of his last name. "Tram" was surprisingly named by Lester Young as one of his strongest influences in a 1950's interview.

Turner, Joe --- Big Joe

Kansas City blues shouter "Big Joe" Turner received this nickname because of his large size.

Vinson, Eddie --- Cleanhead or Mr. Cleanhead

Saxophonist Eddie Vinson was called "Cleanhead" for his bald pate (Original entry.)

Vinson was the victim of a substance called "conk" used by African Americans to straighten their hair in those days. The solution tended to get extremely hot and "Cleanhead" couldn't leave it on his head long enough to do what it was supposed to do, so he started trying to get it out and patches of his hair came with it. Since he had to go to work that evening and had no desire to wear a bandana or handkerchief on his head, he shaved off what was left. The band members had a ball with the epithets and the sobriquet "Cleanhead" stuck.

Another version courtesy of Axel Melhardt: While Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson worked at my club JAZZLAND in Vienna, Austria in the 70-ies I found him one morning at the hotel in front of the mirror shaving his head. He told me that after his big hit "Folks call me Mr.Cleanhead" he had to upkeep his bald head for the rest of his life in order to get gigs. Up until his early death he had full hair (with little white patches) which grew only on his days off stage.

Waller, Thomas --- Fats

There is no mystery to the nickname "Fats" which was given to the rotund stride pianist Thomas Waller.

Webster, Ben --- Frog, The Brute

Ben Webster was known as Frog, I think because of his somewhat bulging eyes.

Williams, Charles Melvin --- Cootie

We don't know why Ellington trumpeter Charles Melvin Williams was called "Cootie." If you do, let us know.

Young, Lester Willis --- Pres, The President

Lester's nickname "Pres" or "The President" comes from his good friend Billie Holiday who thought that he was, indeed, the "president" of saxophone players.


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