Contractual Obligation: Pseudonyms In Jazz
I first became aware of pseudonyms in jazz when I bought a copy of John Coltrane's Ole. The title track featured a blistering flute solo by some guy I'd never heard before — George Lane. Turns out that he didn't really exist, except as an assumed name for Eric Dolphy. This kind of fakery happens as a matter of course. Record contracts of yesteryear (and some today) buried exclusivity clauses in the fine print. Yet musicians have to make a decent living wage, so they play on someone else's record date.
Pseudonyms are a stroke of tacit collusion, really. Great musicians have an unmistakable sonic signature. They cannot help but sound like themselves, but for the purposes of legality, they must bill themselves as someone else. Charlie Parker was, famously, "Charlie Chan," on a couple of records. Trumpeter Fats Navarro was "Slim Romero." Creative musicians deserve equally enterprising noms de guerre.
The practice of undercover operatives is not relegated to the outpost of jazz, either — think Diddy, P. Diddy and Puff Daddy. And surely, people who spend their waking hours on a computer likely have some form of alter-ego that represents them — an avatar, or even a gravatar (globally recognized avatar). In the comments, feel free to create an alias for someone in jazz. Wynton Marsalis? Well, he's already the obscure English trumpeter E. Dankworth. "Winston Morales," however, is up for grabs.
While you're playing along, check out these records featuring some of my favorite pseudonyms.
This story originally ran May, 19, 2009.
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