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Contractual Obligation: Pseudonyms In Jazz

The only known photo of Buckshot La Funke.
Photo Illustration: Lars Gotrich; Photos: Hulton Archive
Getty Images, iStock.
The only known photo of Buckshot La Funke.

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.

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This story originally ran May, 19, 2009.

Contractual Obligation: Pseudonyms In Jazz

Featuring Cannonball Adderley as "Buckshot La Funke"

Trumpeter Louis Smith cut a handful of records for the Transition label. Alfred Lion bought them and released them under the Blue Note aegis. The unmistakable bounce of Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's alto saxophone is present on "Ande," even though he’s listed as "Buckshot La Funke." Cannonball was signed to Mercury Records at the time, and Buckshot never really made another recording after this session. However, he did inspire the name of Branford Marsalis' hip-hop jazz project: Buckshot LeFonque.

Featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim as "Tony Brazil"

Pianist Jack Wilson’s recording of Henry Mancini songs carries the whiff of cigars at cocktail hour, and Tony Brazil sounds like the stage name of a silk ascot-wearing hotel lounge singer from the 1970s. There is a certain cool factor, however, when you discover that the strumming guitarist, Mr. Brazil, is actually the primary composer and architect of bossa nova, Antonio Carlos Jobim. While purists of both jazz and samba would greet this album with derision, easy listening has rarely been this hip. Turntablists and DJs who mix "chill music" into their set pay top dollar for records like this.

Featuring Sonny Boy Williamson as "Big Skol"

Roland Kirk's blues style was something akin to dipping a saxophone into a large gravy boat. This live shot from the Club Montmartre in Copenhagen, from October 1963, is one of Kirk's best EmArcy recordings. Nestled among a set of loose and exciting jazz improvisation, this “mighty low” song features Sonny Boy Williamson trading blues harp licks with Kirk’s wind arsenal on the impromptu jam, "The Monkey Thing." Big Skol was just the latest in a string of identities for Sonny Boy, which is also a nickname. Be sure to dig Kirk's use of circular breathing near the end, a technique of continuous note playing that works well in the blues tradition, but sounds totally lame when Kenny G does it.

Featuring Freddie Redd as "I Ching"

Pianist Freddie Redd wrote the music for playwright Jack Gelber's The Connection, a shockingly realistic portrait of heroin junkies and jazz musicians waiting for the next fix. Redd recorded the music twice -- once for Blue Note, and again on this co-led session with trumpeter Howard McGhee for Felsted Records. Because he was under contract at the former, Redd chose the pseudonym I Ching for the latter date. (Was I, Claudius unavailable?). There's some embedded humor here; jazz musicians are known for playing the (chord) changes, and the I Ching is a classic Chinese text known as the Book of Changes. "Theme for Sister Salvation" is a march, a ballad and one of the few opportunities to hear saxophonist Tina Brooks.

Featuring Gato Barbieri as "Unidentified Cat"

After the beautiful and thoroughly exhaustive Escalator Over the Hill, pianist and composer Carla Bley collaborated again with the poet Paul Haines. Tropic Appetites features an octet with overdubs, some astute rhythm accompaniment from bassist Dave Holland and drummer Paul Motian, and trippy texts recited by a former British rock star. Sound beguiling? It is. On the album’s opening track, the cat on tenor saxophone is unidentified, though anyone who has ever heard the music from Last Tango in Paris may detect the caterwauling of Leandro "Gato" Barbieri. The Argentine tenor adds his wailing wall of sound to the instrumental preamble, “What Will Be Left Between Us and the Moon Tonight?”

Copyright 2010 WBGO

Josh Jackson is the associate general manager for content at WRTI in Philadelphia.