We are always told that in Shakespeare's day spelling was still fluid and that if you felt a word was better spelt one way than another, then fine. This is no longer true, except in very rare cases. You can write 'all right' as 'alright' and get away with it. You can alternate between 'jail' and 'gaol' and get away with it. Are there many other examples of even limited freedom like this? I doubt it.
But personal names seem to be much more flexible. Even when a name seems cut and dried there is usually room for manoeuvre. You wouldn't think there was more than one way of spelling Tom, would you? Thom Gunn wouldn't agree. How do you spell Jimmy? Yes, but not if you are Jimi Hendrix. Whenever you meet someone called Jeffrey you have to be quick to find out if he's Jeffrey or Geoffrey. Brian can also be Bryan, John can be Jon. It's sometimes Billy and sometimes Billie, Lawrence then Laurence . . I occasionally meet other people called Miles and I occasionally meet other people called Myles, and although it's exactly the same name, there is a difference too . . .
I suppose it is pedantic to insist that there is a right spelling for any name. In my younger days I too was a pedant of sorts, though it seems hard to imagine now, and I once sent a snotty letter to the South Bank Show claiming that they had a misspelling in their opening credit sequence. They had, too. One of the many famous people listed was Charley Parker. Unfortunately, there is no famous person called Charley Parker. There is, however, a famous jazz player called Charlie Parker . . .
(As if to cut me down to size, I too have had trouble with a jazz Charlie, Charlie Mingus. When I came to do a jazz anthology for HarperCollins a year or two back, I was told strictly by my editor that a jazz expert he had consulted about my text, and who was as snottily pedantic as I had been, had informed him that Mingus hated being called Charlie and therefore he should always be referred to as Charles. Hmmm . . .)
There was a time when nicknames in jazz were pointed to as particularly colourful examples of nomenclature - the Dukes and Counts and Earls - but very often their real names are more interesting. In the case of Earl Hines, Earl was his real name - his unimaginative real nickname was 'Father'. Bud Powell's real name was Earl Powell. Earl Swope the trombonist was really called Earl Swope, which I find hard to believe. Earl, yes, but Swope?
I was always intrigued by the drummer called Osie Johnson, because it seemed such a clear case of a man being called after his initials, which must have been O C, surely. I have now, after 30 years, looked him up and I find to my mortification that Osie was his real name. Where then does the name Osie come from? I have no idea. 'Hot Lips' Page was a well-known trumpeter before Second World War, with a colourful nickname to boot, but his real first name was Oran, and I have never met anyone in my life called Oran (or Thaddeus, which was his second name, come to that). How come anyone, let alone a black American trumpeter, was named after a port in Algeria? And 'Slim' Gaillard was known to his mother as Bulee Gaillard, a name I didn't even know the existence of.
The more you wander through the pages of the Grove's Dictionary of Jazz, which is what I have been doing these hot summer nights when I couldn't get to sleep, the more people you find who really did have odder names than their nicknames. And it is when you get down to the plain old Smiths that you find some of the best stuff. 'Stuff' Smith was a great jazz violinist whose real name was a resounding Hezekiah Leroy Gordon Smith. 'Tab' Smith was really called Talmadge Smith. Teddy Smith was really Theodore Smith (and Teddy Wilson was also a Theodore).
But the man who makes it all worthwhile for me is 'Jabbo' Smith, the trumpeter whose real name is on record as being Cladys. Cladys Smith. Cladys? I give up.Reuse content