11 jazz nicknames and the history behind them

For jazz artists, being given a nickname is virtually a rite of passage.

We know the obvious ones. Louis Armstrong was called “Satchmo,” shortened from “Satchelmouth,” which comes with a variety of tales and possible origins. Dizzy Gillespie was named for his erratic onstage antics. Frank Sinatra was dubbed “Chairman of the Board” during his time as president of Reprise Records, and acquired the name “Ol’ Blue Eyes” because of, well, his blue eyes. There are plenty of royal or aristocratic titles bestowed upon artists such as Nat “King” Cole, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Lady Day. And then there are dozens of Buddys and Sonnys, Bigs and Tinys, Juniors and Shortys, Papas and Pee Wees, and Reds and Rustys. Really, it’s harder to name a jazz cat who doesn’t have a nickname than it is to name one who does.

But some have stories you wouldn’t expect, or origins that really stand out. These are the more idiosyncratic sobriquets, the ones you always wondered about but probably never looked up. Was David Newman named “Fathead” because he had a big head? Nope. Did Charlie Parker get the name “Yardbird” because of his love of ornithology? Also no. Was Eddie Vinson called “Cleanhead” because he was bald? Sort of, but not really.

Here are 11 of the most unique and interesting jazz nicknames and the stories of how the artists got them.

Nat and Cannonball Adderley in 1961.
Credit: Dave Brinkman (ANEFO)

Cannonball Adderley

Before he became an essential saxophonist of the hard bop era, Julian Edwin Adderley was a New York high-school student with a monster of an appetite. His propensity to put away enormous amounts of food (eloquently described as “trenchermanship” by Adderley himself) was evidently so great that a classmate called him “Cannibal” — which seems harsh for a kid who, by all accounts, never actually consumed any human flesh. Luckily, that morphed into “Cannonball,” which has no connection other than sounding similar to Adderley’s original nickname, but it sure beats being called a cannibal.

Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson

Between the 1920s and 1960s, one of the popular hairstyles among black Americans was the conk. It involved chemically straightening the hair using a relaxer made from lye — either a solution called congolene (hence the name) or a homemade concoction. It eventually fell out of vogue due to the dangers of chemical burns and the rise of the Black Power movement (Malcolm X was a vocal opponent of the hairstyle, viewing it as a symbol of white superiority). But in its time, it was sported by a number of musicians including Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, James Brown and Little Richard. It was also attempted by saxophonist and blues singer Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson. The word is that Vinson tried to straighten his hair but ended up burning it clean off. The hair did grow back, but Vinson opted to keep his bald head — and his nickname — for life.

Charlie “Yardbird” Parker

In the Deep South, domestic chickens are known colloquially as yardbirds. And as it turns out, they were saxophonist Charlie Parker’s meal of choice. Trombonist and blues singer Clyde E. B. Bernhardt wrote in his autobiography that Parker had told him he “was crazy about eating chicken: fried, baked, boiled, stewed, anything.” In a 1999 interview, pianist Jay McShann backed up Bernhardt’s account with a story about hitting a chicken with his car. “Charlie yelled, ‘Back up. You hit a yardbird!’ He got out of the car and got it and carried the chicken on into Lincoln. He had it cooked and ate it all in one sitting.” The nickname went on to inspire several titles of Parker’s compositions, such as Yardbird Suite, Bird Gets the Worm and Bird of Paradise, and his unique version of the 12-bar blues is known as “Bird changes.”

David “Fathead” Newman

The R&B saxophonist is best known for being a sideman on seminal Ray Charles recordings from the 1950s and ’60s. To those around him, he earned a reputation for his musical sophistication — for better or for worse. The nickname “Fathead” was, as you might have guessed, not intended as a term of endearment when it was first uttered. According to The New York Times: “An outraged music instructor used it as an epithet after catching Mr. Newman playing a Sousa march from memory rather than from reading the sheet music, which rested upside down on the stand.” Charles, however, preferred the more complimentary moniker, “Brains.”

Chick Corea
Credit: Facebook

Chick Corea

When he was a child, Armando Anthony Corea had an aunt who would always pinch his cheeks and call him “cheeky.” At some point that transformed into “Chick” and became a nickname that stuck with him for his whole life. And so Chick Corea is the popularly known name of one of the leading voices in jazz piano.

Kenny “Klook” Clarke

An innovator of the bebop style of drumming, Kenny Clarke pioneered both the use of the ride cymbal to keep time (thus inventing the recognizable jazz rhythm known as the “spang-a-lang”) and the use of the bass drum for spontaneous, irregular accents (known as “dropping bombs”). One of the exercises he had developed to help himself hone those techniques involved a snare rimshot followed by a bomb, and the sound it produced was phoneticized as klook-mop — and the shortened “Klook” stuck as a nickname for the adventurous drummer.

The Velvet Fog

Most of us know jazz crooner Mel Tormé carried the nickname the Velvet Fog throughout his career. What you may or may not also know is that the singer outright hated the nickname. When he was just 21, Tormé sang at the Copacabana in New York, and local disc jockey Fred Robbins gave him the nickname based on his smooth, soft voice. But despite Tormé’s protests, the name stuck with him for the rest of his life (even being uttered repeatedly and prominently in a 1995 episode of Seinfeld, just a few years before his death).

Jeff “Tain” Watts

Sometimes a nickname’s explanation is so bad it’s good. The story goes that when revolutionary jazz drummer Jeff Watts and pianist Kenny Kirkland were on tour in Florida with Wynton Marsalis around 1983, they passed a gas station called Chieftain Gas. As Watts explained in a 2009 interview with All About Jazz: “(Kirkland) said, ‘Chief Tain, you’re going to be Jeff Tain,’ and I said, ‘No I’m not,’ but then I could not avoid it.” It seems like a stretch of the imagination — the kind of goofy thought that might only occur to someone who’s been on the road for days, weeks or months. But as Watts said, he just couldn’t avoid it.

Johnny Hodges in 1946, with Al Sears in the background.
Credit: William P. Gottlieb

Johnny “Rabbit” Hodges

Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges is best known for his work with Duke Ellington’s big band. He had a couple nicknames, but the most documented one was “Rabbit” — and there have been a number of rumoured and reported explanations for the nickname. Some people believed it was because he could win 100-yard dashes and outrun truant officers in school. Johnny Griffin said it was because “he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music.” But the nickname’s real origin is that Hodges grew up in Boston with Harry Carney, who called him “Rabbit” because of the way he would nibble on lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Ellington, meanwhile, had a habit of writing tunes for specific band members, such as Confab with Rab and Jeep’s Blues. However, it’s hard to find any sort of explanation for how Hodges came to be known as “Jeep” among Ellington and his orchestra.

Jay “Hootie” McShann

The jazz pianist and bandleader who helped shape the bluesy Kansas City sound steered clear of the booze. But one time at a hootenanny, someone slipped him a loaded drink and he couldn’t play that night. That led his friends to call him “Hootie” for short. He then went on to introduce the world to the now-famous Charlie Parker, whose recording debut was on McShann’s 1941 tune Hootie Blues. A documentary of the same name told the story of McShann’s life in 1978.

Mongo Santamaria

Most nicknames tend to be bestowed upon their bearers by friends or fellow musicians. But for Ramón Santamaría Rodríguez, the name “Mongo” — the Senegalese word for a tribal chief — was given to him by his father. The Afro-Cuban jazz percussionist went on to become a master of the rumba quinto. In 1950 he moved from Cuba to New York and brought with him an unmistakable sound, bringing Afro-Cuban grooves into R&B and soul and laying the groundwork for the late ’60s boogaloo era. Santamaria loved the nickname given to him by his father, and it appears in at least a dozen of his album titles.