Jazz royalty

Jazz royalty is a term that reflects the many great jazz musicians who have some sort of royal title in their names or nicknames.


Earliest jazz "monarchs" in New Orleans

Missing image
Joe "King" Oliver

The practice goes back to New Orleans at the start of the 20th century, back before the music was commonly known as "jazz". Buddy Bolden was known as "King Bolden", as the top hot music and hot trumpeter of the city.

The realization that such titles might have commercial or public relations values also dates to this era. Violinist and bandleader Alex Watzke, observing Bolden's popularity, started billing himself as "King Watzke", and paid children coins to publicly point at him as he walked down the street and say "There goes King Watzke". While he succeeded in appending that nickname to himself, some fellow musicians used it more with amusement than with the respect accorded to Bolden.

After Bolden left the music scene in 1907, his crown was taken by Freddie Keppard. "King Keppard" ruled until 1914 when Joe Oliver bested him in musical battle.

Joe Oliver left New Orleans in 1919. Some later writers have assumed that the trumpet crown at that time went to Oliver's protege Louis Armstrong, but Armstrong and his contemporaries made no such claim. Armstrong had a powerful rival in Buddie Petit, who many ranked higher than young Armstrong in the 1919-1922 period. Neither billed himself as "king".

National jazz kings

Oliver was known as "King Oliver" in Chicago, and still regarded as the jazz king as late as 1925, when Louis Armstrong returned to Chicago from New York City. Armstrong's great respect and affection for Oliver was probably a factor in never claiming Oliver's kingship, although at the urging of his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong Louis Armstrong was billed as the "world's greatest jazz trumpeter", rendering Oliver's title more ceremonial than a claim of supremacy.

Meanwhile in New York City, Paul Whiteman billed himself as the "King of Jazz". His nationally popular band with many hit records arguably played more jazz-influenced pop music than jazz per se, but to the dismay of many later jazz fans Whiteman was widely known as "King of Jazz" in the 1920s and early 1930s and a motion picture The King of Jazz starring Whiteman and his band appeared in 1930.

Jelly Roll Morton was one of many annoyed by Whiteman's claim and had enough bravado to challenge it. In 1924 he billed his band as "the Kings of Jazz", but the title never caught on.

The New Orleans Rhythm Kings were popular in Chicago.

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington

Best known jazz royalty titles

Swing era

Benny Goodman was regularly called the "King of Swing". His rival, Artie Shaw, was often called "King of the Clarinet". Goodman's song "King Porter Stomp" was written by Jelly Roll Morton after a piano player he knew named Porter King. Later a little-known bandleader took the name "King Porter".

Nat King Cole's nickname is partly inspired by the nursery rhyme "Old King Cole" and partly inspired by his impressive piano technique.

There was a popular, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek "sweet" big band, led by Blue Barron, a stage name. Blue Barron once billed himself as competing for the title of "King of the Mickey Mouse Bands".

Later Jazz Monarchs & Aristocrats

  • Many of Al Hirt's records credited him as Al "He's The King" Hirt.

Blues Monarchs

Mamie Smith was billed as the "Queen of the Blues"; Bessie Smith outdid her with the billing "Empress of the Blues". In a later era, Dinah Washington was also billed as the "Queen of the Blues".

B.B. King always called himself the "Blues Boy" or "Beale Street Blues Boy" and fellow bluesmen Albert King and Freddie King were content to share a last name with him.

Other nicknames

Many other jazz greats had nicknames that were not royalty-related, but some consider them to be part of the royalty anyway -- purely because their skill as musicians merits a place on the list with the best:

See also Prince


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