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.
I love jazz because, even after many years as a professional performer, teacher and author on the subject, this music still possesses the element of deep mystery and surprise. I recently heard somebody say that if you can explain something, you take the mystery out of it
I love jazz because, even after many years as a professional performer, teacher and author on the subject, this music still possesses the element of deep mystery and surprise. I recently heard somebody say that if you can explain something, you take the mystery out of it. Not in this case! It seems that with every explanation, new questions arise exponentially! It's like the universe is constantly inviting (challenging) you to grow musically.