Music

Flip Your Lid Over This Swingin’ Sampling of Slang From America’s Greatest Jazzmen

Jazzmen had their own lexicon, reflecting their takes on music, life, and fellow artists. The musicians never used it with the public, and even if fans overheard, they would not have understood. Which was the point. The secret language allowed performers to talk about their audience without it overhearing, the way immigrant parents used Yiddish, Polish, or Italian to keep things from their English-speaking children. Or children use pig Latin, and jive, to keep things from parents.

Their wordbook fostered intimacy even as it conferred secrecy. It was a shorthand for making sense of their world, as we can see from this sampling:

Alligator: a listener (sometimes a white jazzman trying to learn – or steal – from Black ones);

Barbecue, canary, and pigeon: slang for woman;

Blow my top, flip my lid, and bust my conk: expressions making clear you’d enjoyed yourself;

Bug disease: Ellington’s term for letting irritations of daily life bug you, which he tried hard not to;

Butter-and-egg man: a small-time big shot;

Chili bandits: girls who chased musicians;

Crow Jim: anti-white bigotry, as distinct from Jim Crow’s racism;

Cutting contest: a battle of pianists or bands to see who shone brighter;

Funk: musicians turned the term on its head, from its earlier meaning of dejected to in-the-groove;

Galilee: the way African Americans in the North referred to the South they’d left behind;

Grays: Basie’s word for white people. Black people were Oxford grays or oxes;

Handkerchief head: a close relation to an Uncle Tom;

Liquor head: a drunk, while a dipsy was a drunk looking for sex, but you could count on a 100-proof guy;

Moldy figs: the disparaging way up-and-coming players referred to the old guard;

Mugging light: soft swing, while mugging heavy was the opposite and gutbucket was swinging to the Blues;

Nasty types: people who were as unwelcome as an undertaker at a marriage breakfast;

Ofay: a not-so-fond way Black people referred to white people;

Physic: a laxative that, like most everything, Louis pronounced with an accent as suggestive of Brooklyn as of his native New Orleans;

Potville: the name given to the deadliest of burgs where the only thing to do was get drunk or smoke pot, preferably hand-rolled into a fat bomber;

Race man (or woman): the opposite of an Uncle Tom, which had become a verb, tomming;

Sandman: a lot like a handkerchief head, although it was alright, the Count advised, to “do a little sanding to get next to a chick”;

Taking a Boston: another way of saying swinging;

Vipers: people like Louis who smoked gage, tea, mota, muggles, weed, reefer, or what he called simply some of that good shit;

Whaling: Louis’ shorthand for having sex, which he talked about almost as often as he did it;

Yassuh, no suh, boss, and cullid: Terms Armstrong used to outfox the police or bigots.

Nicknames were almost as common as invented vocabulary for jazzmen and women, including these:

Edward Kennedy Ellington: Governor, Guv’nor, Guvvy, the Duke of Hot, Maestro, the Joe Louis of Song Champions, Fatso, Monster, Tubby, Phony, Stinkpot, Apple Dumpling, Dumpy, Dump, Puddin’, Head Knocker, Sandhead, The Artful Dodger and, most often and most simply, Duke.

William James Basie: Willie, Billy, Chief, Holy Man, Jump King of Swing, Daddy Basie, Base Man, Bateman, Base, Tink-a-Tink Man, Mr. Hold-It-Together, Picasso of Jazz, Kansas City Killer, Splank, Splanky and, the one that stuck, Count.

Louis Armstrong: Little Louis, Shadmouth, Dipper, Dippermouth, Gatemouth, Satchelmouth, Boat Nose, Hammock Face, Slow Foot, Rhythm Jaws, Sackaface, Henpeck, Brass (or Iron) Lips, Laughin’ Louie, Fats Armstrong, Ambassador Satch, Louie, Mighty Satchmo, Uncle Satchmo, Satchee-mo and, the most celebrated sobriquet in song, Satchmo. As for which Louis liked best, he famously said, “Call me anything at all. Just don’t call me too late to eat!”

Larry Tye is a New York Times bestselling author and journalist. His latest book, The Jazzmen: How Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie Transformed America, looks at how these three maestros wrote the soundtrack for the civil rights revolution. It is out now on HarperCollins.

The Jazzmen
The Jazzmen

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