Have you noticed how nicknames have pretty much disappeared from jazz and baseball? What happened, where did they all go? There’s still the odd half-decent one around, like say Joey Bats, or Trombone Shorty. But these days it seems the only celebrities in any number with colourful nicknames are rap or hip-hop “artists”, and I’d happily say goodbye to their soubriquets if it also meant the musical genre would just disappear, forever and without a trace. Forgive my white-ass, hidebound and middle-aged attitude, but I need a little more wit and romance in my music than sampled rhythm tracks and the rhyming of “bitch” with “snitch” can provide. Otherwise it’s pretty Slim Pickens…… sorry….. slim pickings these days, a far cry from the past when the two fields were knee-deep in nicknames.
Consider jazz figures for a minute : Jelly Roll, Satchmo, King, Duke, Count, Fatha. Bunk, Bix, Bunny, Cootie, Wingy, Jabbo. Bubber, Baby, Muggsy, Bumps. (Rubber baby buggy bumpers.) Yank, Nappy, Chippie, Matty, Miff, Stuff, Big Tea and Toots. Tricky Sam, Rabbit, Bean and Pres. Big Sid, Little Jazz, Jaws and Sweets. Big-Eye, Cat’s-Eye, Lady Day, The Rockin’ Chair Lady. The Brute, Bud, Dodo, Bird, Dizzy, Buzzy, Floorshow, Flip. Zoot and Zutty. The Lion, The Beetle, Pinetop, Fats, Slim and Slam, not to mention Bam. Klook, Newk, Bags, Babs, Jug, Keg, Philly Joe, ‘Trane and Cannonball. Lots of Reds, Shortys, Pee Wees, Luckys. Busters and Bucks, Papas and Kids. Oh baby………
Nowadays, not only does jazz not have nicknames, but the real names have gone all formal – Nicholas, Marcus, Branford, Terence, Elliot, Reginald, Wycliffe. Yawn, it sounds like the register at some swanky English men’s club, like they should all have “Sir” in front of them or “Esq.” after them. Maybe we could retro-fit these formal handles, so that all Arts or Arties would become Arthur, Freddies would convert to Frederick and so on. This would give us such zippy album titles as “Modern Arthur”, “Ready For Frederick” or best of all, “Milton’s Groove”. We could have Herbert Hancock, William Corea, Sheldon Manne and His Men and of course the incredible James Smith at the Hammond organ. More than most, I realize that jazz players – both black and white – were second class citizens for decades, and I’m all for them gaining more respect, social standing and everything. But can’t we cool it a bit with the tony names? Maybe have the occasional Cornbread or Bricktop around to liven things up a little?
There are no doubt some stiffs out there who might consider this unimportant, frivolous, be tempted to ask…. well, so what? They would be wrong, the poor dullards. Just try to picture the landscape of jazz history if things had always been this formal, with no nicknames.
Would a band called Edward Ellington and His Orchestra have been quite so singular? Would “Kinda Dukish” then be “Somewhat Ellingtonian”? Would the William Basie Band have been so jumpin’ at the Woodside? Could Woodrow Charles Herman have had so many Thundering Herds? Instead of the old gag about “Chubby left Woody”, how about “Grieg left Woodrow”? Riotous, huh?
If Bix Beiderbecke had gone by his given name, would Edward Condon have been moved to say, “Leon had a sound like a girl saying yes”? Doesn’t sound right, does it? Do the names Thomas Waller, Charles Ellsworth Russell, Wilbur Clayton or Roland Berigan grab you? No, but Fats, Pee Wee, Buck and Bunny do.
If Charlie Parker hadn’t been called “Yardbird” or just plain “Bird”, then what? Would “Ornithology” have been written, or so titled? Can you imagine “A Bird in Igor’s Yard” being called “A Charlie in Igor’s Parker”? What would Parker’s own titles look like – “Carvin’ the Charlie”? “Parker of Paradise”? Anyone want to sit through “Charles Parker Suite”? Would “Charles Lives!” have been scrolled as a graffiti slogan all over Manhattan after he died? Don’t think so – Charles who? It would have been confused with Charles Ives.
How about using Bud Powell’s given name Earl? Who could resist “Bouncing With Earl”, “Earl’s Bubble”, “Earlo”? Not to mention “In Walked Earl” and the classic series of Blue Note records called The Amazing Earl Powell.
Or consider Dizzy, whose real name was John Birks Gillespie. “Birks Works” works as a title, but “John Atmosphere” doesn’t, it sounds like the name for a bathroom sanitizer or something. “Gillespie’s Business” doesn’t really work either, it’s gotta be “Dizzy’s Business.”
Think of other album titles. Shorty Rogers’ record of Richard Rodgers songs would be called Milton Rajonsky Plays Richard Rodgers. Pres and Teddy would become Lester and Theodore, Lucky Strikes would be Eli Strikes. Witty, swingin’ stuff, where do I sign? Beat me daddy, eight to the bar. Actually, these days, make that seven to the bar.
It ain’t Alvin and John, it’s Al and Zoot. Not Ed and Harry, but Jaws and Sweets. These names have colour and poetry, rhythm and meter, they swing, just as their owners did. They’re not just nicknames, they’re calling cards of distinctive identity, announcements of personality and individualism.
Baseball history is also rich in nicknames, but they were more varied and worked a bit differently. Jazz nicknames were permanent fixtures, what these various musicians were always called. There are a few like this in baseball – Casey Stengel, Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean, Yogi Berra, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider – never Charles, George, Jerome, Lawrence, Harold or Edwin. Like the jazz handles, they’re generally just more informal first names.
Some baseball nicknames were full phrases or titles, often dreamed up by sportswriters and bestowed as a respectful tribute to a player’s greatness. Often these would be used in the press or in the context of other baseball coverage – “The Sultan of Swat”, “The Peerless Leader”, “The Grey Eagle”, “The Iron Horse”, “The Meal Ticket”, “The Yankee Clipper”, “The Splendid Splinter”, “Old Reliable” and so on.
They could often be quite ornate and fanciful, as in “The Wild Hoss of the Osage” for Pepper Martin. “Death To Flying Things” for Bob Ferguson and his great glove-work at third base. Or “Babe Ruth’s Legs” for Sammy Byrd, a late-inning defensive sub for the Bambino. “Old Aches and Pains” for the shortstop Luke Appling, in recognition of his mild hypochondria.
Nicknames in baseball became livelier and more personal over time, often describing a player’s personality, mannerisms, appearance, habits, special abilities, or even flaws. Johnny Evers was known as “The Crab” for his grouchy intensity, Burleigh Grimes was “Ol’ Stubblebeard” for his grizzled look. Al Simmons was called “Bucketfoot Al” because he looked like he was shaking a bucket off his foot while at bat. Paul Waner and his kid brother Lloyd were known as “Big Poison” and “Little Poison”, because that’s how New Yorkers pronounced “person” and Brooklyn’s Carl Erskine was known as “Oisk” for much the same reason. Carl Furillo was “The Reading Rifle” because he was from near Reading, Pennsylvania and had a really strong throwing arm. He was also called “Skoonj” because he liked snails – “scungilli” in Italian.
Bad fielders were often called “Boots” because they booted so many balls and of course Dick Stuart was “Dr. Strangeglove” for his butchering defense at first base – one of the great nicknames ever. Blonde players were often called “Whitey”, country bumpkins “Rube” and overweight guys didn’t escape attention either – Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons, Chubby Dean, Fatty Fothergill, Blimp Hayes.
There were some really funny plays on people’s actual names, like Bill “Goober” Zuber, “Dim” Dom Dallessandro, Hank “Bow Wow” Arft, “Pickles” Dillhoefer, and “Hillbilly” Baldilli. Sal Maglie was called “The Barber” partly because he was a scary, swarthy-looking Italian guy who had a five-o’clock shadow at seven in the morning, but mostly because he liked to “shave” hitters with close, inside pitches. His Giant teammate Clint Hartung was known as “Floppy” because he was a can’t-miss-prospect who did. “Sudden Sam McDowell” was so named because his fastball arrived at the plate so quickly and effortlessly. Walt Williams was known as “No Neck” because, well…. he had no neck.
Okay, so enough, you get the picture. I’ve barely scratched the surface, there were hundreds of them and I’ve just mentioned a few favourites. I’ll admit I can get carried away with the nicknames, but they are fun. As to why they’ve virtually disappeared and what this means, well, those are big questions; maybe a good subject for a doctoral thesis in sociology, which I have absolutely no intention of writing here. It’s tempting to throw in some guff about those being simpler, more leisurely times, that the contemporary world has become more complex and fast-paced, so we now have a different approach to life, blah-blah-blah. It’s true I guess, but pretty general and basically meaningless as an explanation. I do think an increased emphasis on the concept of “professionalism” over the years has squeezed some of the informality and personality out of life, making for a more buttoned-down conformity.
Maybe we don’t have or need heroes anymore because technology has blunted our capacity to be amazed by anything non-tech, or because so many of our would-be idols end up having feet of clay. I do think the fading of nicknames shows that individualism is less possible and valued now, that we no longer have as emotional or personal an attachment to jazz musicians or ballplayers as many once did. I mean, think about it. These figures were given nicknames because they were unique and distinctive, because people felt close to them, liked or loved them. Even the derogatory or insulting names were still given mostly with affection.
It was warm and personal and I don’t think we feel that way about our stars anymore. We admire them, some of us idolize and obsess over them in excessive and very odd ways. We envy them, secretly crave and celebrate their occasional downfalls, but we don’t feel close to them. There’s far too big a gap between us and them for that anymore. The sports and entertainment industries, the revenues involved have become too big and corporately controlled to allow a real emotional connection that might lead somebody to call a ballplayer Twinkletoes, or a jazz musician Pops now.
As far as I can tell, the nicknaming reached a peak in the ’30s but continued strongly, seriously declining in the ’70s. It’s not that hard to see why. Apart from being a decade of generally bad hair, clothes and music, the ’70s were like a delayed post-traumatic stress reaction to the momentous and sinister events of the ’60s, none of which did much for our sense of light-heartedness or innocence. The assassination of JFK, the Vietnam War, the further assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the violence and unrest of the civil rights movement, the anti-war protests and the brutal reaction to these, Kent State, the 1968 Democratic Convention and on and on, culminating with Watergate. It was cumulative and it took a while for all this to sink in, but it badly shook America’s faith in itself and its basic institutions – government, education, business, the law, the military, the media. I’m not sure that America has ever really recovered and since then there have been other tragic events and scandals that have left all of us shaken, scared witless, distrustful. Maybe a little too angst-ridden for the simple levity of bestowing funny nicknames.
A lot of the baseball and jazz monikers were generated by the media of the past, which tended toward boosterism and hero-worship, as did society itself. I think the eventual exposure of the Watergate scandal effected a sea change in the media, how it regarded itself, as well as in the public’s expectations of it. In the past, people who wrote for newspapers were known as “newspapermen” and those that covered sports were known as “sportswriters”; after Watergate they all became “journalists”, for better or worse. Increasingly it became their job to not just report the facts of a story or a ballgame, but to investigate, dig dirt, expose and offer criticism, analysis and an editorial point of view.
This extended even to the seemingly lighter world of baseball, which around the time of Watergate started to have some unrest of its own with the dawn of free agency, power struggles over money, strikes, later drug and steroid scandals. The relationship between these new sports journalists and the players was increasingly adversarial and distrustful, as seen in the case of Steve Carlton in the early ’70s. The new breed of baseball scribes weren’t close enough to the players to confer nicknames on them and besides, they couldn’t expect to be taken seriously in writing a piece exposing the drug use or marital infidelity of a player named Cookie or Bubbles.
The spiraling salaries have also been a factor – a guy making $15 million a year probably wouldn’t take too kindly to the nickname “Choo Choo”, any more than you’d feel inclined to call him that. Nobody is going to write a piece about the viability of signing a free agent named “Puddin’ Head” Jones or “Losing Pitcher” Mulcahy, any more than they’re going to write a serious critical profile of a jazz singer nicknamed “Mr. Five by Five”, even though Jimmy Rushing is about as serious as jazz singing gets. There’s too much money and reputation at stake now, but why should we let that get in the way of our having fun? It’s all become a bit stuffy, we’ve been conned into taking things seriously that were never meant to be that serious and it’s become a habit. In fact, it’s happening right now in this article. It started off in a fairly light-hearted vein and has gotten all bogged down in analysis. Sorry. WALLACE, SNAP OUT OF IT!
The political correctness movement certainly hasn’t helped any of this. It’s the new McCarthyism, shoving a glass rod of hair-splitting linguistic self-consciousness so far up our unsuspecting asses that we can’t even speak the English language plainly anymore. What would the language police have to say about nicknames like Possum Whitted, Tubby Hayes, Chink Martin, Jumbo Elliott or Spade Cooley? Never mind the PC apoplexy that would greet the funny, earthy pronouncements of a Louis Armstrong or a Dizzy Dean over the mainstream airwaves. This brainwashing of blandness has created a cautious air of mild paranoia where one is reluctant to offend, insult or even offer a mildly negative personal view, lest it go viral over the Internet. One pauses before making statements like say, “Kenny G has a sound like a girl saying bugger off” or “Rush Limbaugh is a cretin”, even though they’re just private opinions. Nothing is that private anymore.
In this climate, you think twice about calling a seriously ugly ballplayer like Johnny Gomes “Swamp Rat”, even though that’s just what he looks like. You suppress the urge to call Adam Lind “Porky” because of his porcine features, hold off calling a great player with corn-row hair like Andrew McCutchen “The Rasta of Disasta.” Probably too ethnic, might invite a lawsuit. We have to settle for a really unique player like Tim Lincecum being called “The Freak” instead of “The Love Child of Grace Slick and Jimmy Page” which is more like it, but might offend the rocker crowd and extend beyond our attention spans. You don’t want to call Brett Lawrie “Twitchy” for his batting mannerisms or “Shifty” for all the defensive moving around he does, those might offend…. I don’t even know who. You certainly wouldn’t dub him “The Tattoo That Walks Like A Man” and risk the ire of 50 million body-art advocates. No sir, fun is dead, killed by the fear and blandness of a dreary intellectual sanitization.
The revolution in baseball research and information known as “sabermetrics” hasn’t helped matters either. I’m a baseball freak and somewhat of a stat-geek, so I like the new understanding and insight all this has brought to the game, but I wonder if it hasn’t caused us to be a tad over-analytical, to take baseball too seriously. Instead of having some laughs noticing the oddities or personalities of the players and nicknaming them, we’re too busy trying to decipher the acronyms for the reams of new stats, like WAR, WHIP, GIDP and BARISP. It all looks like an eye-chart gone bad. Not to mention HIP (homers per innings played), ASS (average in sacrifice situations) or CRAP (created runs above par.) Just kidding with those last three, but it’s hard to tell these days, isn’t it?
As for jazz, well, it’s become far too marginal, complex and ponderous to have funny nicknames anymore. From the 1920s to the early ’40s, it was mostly America’s pop music. Even after that began to change, jazz was still economically viable, a musical force to be reckoned with up until the early ’60s, when the Beatles and the pop revolution really hit. Since then it’s continued to grow and evolve and is still somewhat vital, if a bit confused. But, it’s been largely shoved to the sidelines, is no longer really a form of entertainment, nor do those playing jazz regard it as such. It’s now largely an art music, a salon music, a rep-house, museum music saddled with endless revivals and retro-tributes. As such it has come to take itself awfully seriously, as do those who write about it. This has not been conducive to real fun, humour or the continuation of any of its lively traditions, including colourful names. Attempts at making jazz more fun or accessible have utterly failed because they’ve usually been of the dumbing-down or diluting variety. You know, the “Anything But Jazz” Jazz Festival sort of thing, or jazz radio stations devoting 80% of their air-time to an endless parade of turgid, cookie-cutter singers. It seems there’s very little middle ground anymore, just as the middle class is rapidly disappearing. We now mostly have a choice between this vocal jazz-lite, or the dry, egg-headed, cranial stuff. Whatever happened to the real thing?
Worse still, jazz has been embraced with open arms by academia, the kiss of death to irreverence, the number one fun-killer. Reams of people are now taking their master’s degrees or Ph.Ds in jazz, making the ratio of degree-holders to jazz clubs about 400:1. No wonder everyone is going around using their full names, like Robert Hurst III. You’re probably less likely to get a teaching gig at one of these music institutions if you’re universally known as “Night Train” McLean. Picture a kid in one of these courses – is he going to pay attention to a professor named “Gatorhead” Washington explaining chord substitution theory? And if the kid finally graduates, he’s not going to have “Buzzy” Weinstein put on his diploma, he’s going to go with his birth name, Melvin. That way, he can be a fully respectable, degree-holding jazz musician with no gigs. Hey, no sweat, maybe he can get a job teaching jazz at a college………
Don’t get me wrong, I’m partly kidding, I only sound bitter. I exaggerate, jazz education has some really good points and the jazz scene is not quite that bad, yet. It’s just that I’ve always felt that jazz was a serious subject but also a really enjoyable one, whether being played by Pee Wee Russell or Jimmy Guiffre, Muggsy Spanier or Bill Evans. I do think a lot of what I hear passing for jazz lately is not beautiful or lyrical or red-blooded enough, is overly serious and intellectual. I’m hearing lots of complexity, lots of classically-influenced original composition, technical assurance and a dazzling comfort level with time signatures that resemble hat sizes, but I’m not hearing as much dance, soul or feeling as I used to. I’m certainly not hearing much, if any, swing, which has become almost a dirty word, an irrelevance. Mostly what I’m noticing is not enough fun being had by players or listeners, not enough joy. Jazz has to be both serious and fun, it’s a hard balance to strike. Yogi Berra has said that you can’t “think and hit at the same time.” Well, in jazz you can’t feel, think, hear and improvise at the same time, while counting 11/4 and sight-reading chord symbols that look like Egyptian hieroglyphics. At least I can’t, nor do I want to. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks and I’m still mostly hooked on melody and swing, blues feeling and individuality.
I’m not trying to say that baseball or jazz are any worse than they used to be just because they now lack nicknames, or that either could be instantly improved simply by a return to these, though it sure couldn’t hurt. It’s not that simple and I’m not that stupid, not quite. Nor do I want to blindly return to the past, even if that were possible. It’s just that sometimes I find it cheering when the warmth and humour of jazz/baseball nicknames shine through from the past (you know, minus the Depression, lynchings, World War Two, McCarthyism and other fun stuff), to make the present seem a little more colourful, a bit less like the drabsville of now.
I’ve got to run along now, get the metronome out and practice some altered scales and 7/4 exercises. Or maybe I’ll just put on some Prez and Lady Day sides and have a taste. Decisions, decisions.
© 2012 – 2017, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.