Black Music Names from History

February 18, 2018 Linda Rosenkrantz

Black history names include the names of some of the great jazz musicians of the past century. But these cats didn’t just give us some of the best music. These Black music names also offer some inspiration for baby boy names—and on the flip, serve as a cool way for jazz lovers to honor and remember their musical heroes.


Edward Kennedy Ellington (shown) is perhaps the greatest jazz composer in the history of the art form. He also had one of the greatest nicknames: Duke, a noble name currently being discovered by some parents. But a better option might be Ellington, a surname taken from an English place-name that’s a hip choice with an elegant bearing. Ellington is nowhere on the popularity charts now, but we think it could catch on, with its on-trend El-beginning. Cynthia Nixon used it as the middle name for her son Max.


Miles has already been hitting a high note, reaching #105 most popular boys’ name in 2016. A number of athletes and actors bear the name, as well as their progeny, including the sons of Joan Cusack and Larenz Tate. But there’s one person the name especially calls up: pioneering jazz trumpeter Miles Davis (1926–1991), the coolest of the cool. The name comes from the German Milo, possibly via a Slavic word for “gracious” and is also associated with the Latin word for “soldier.”


Miles’ contemporary and counterpart was John Coltrane, a giant of the jazz saxophone. Coltrane originates as an Irish surname, but it could be “a name supreme” for the son of a diehard jazz fan—or an original middle name, as actor Natascha McElhone and her husband, Martin Kelly, did for their son, Rex Coltrane Kelly. McElhone has said Coltrane almost made the cut as Rex’s first name. You can riff on Coltrane with the shortened Cole or clipped Trane, a nickname the musician himself used.


If Cole caught your ear, there’s Nat King Cole, of course, but there’s also Coleman. Jazz history boasts both bebop trailblazer and sax-man Coleman Hawkins and multi-instrumentalist visionary Ornette Coleman, born Randolph Denard Ornette Coleman. Cole hit #110 for boys in 2016, and Coleman is more popular thank you think. It was a Top 500 name at the start of the 20th century, peaking at 360 in…1904. It ascended to #497 in 1997, though has since dropped to #963. While Coleman is usually taken as a surname name, it can also be a variant of Colman, from the Irish Colm.


Scat-singing, big band-leading, Cotton Clubber Cab Calloway cues up another distinctive jazz-inspired name. No, we don’t mean Cab, short for the rare Cabell, a form of Cable or transferred surname. We’re talking Calloway. The name is said to derive from a Norman French place-name meaning “place of stones or pebbles,” making its way to England, Scotland, and Ireland as a surname, and projecting a jaunty Irish feel.


There are several jazz greats known as Art. Art Tatum played piano and Art Blakey played drums, to spotlight just two prominent jazzmen named Art. Both were typically born Arthur. Not so for Irish actor Chris O’Dowd, though. He named his son Art in 2015, as a stand-alone Irish name of three High Kings, coming from an ancient word for “bear.” Arthur was a Top 50 boys’ name for the first half of the 20th century, vamping around the teens in the early decades. It dipped to a low of #389, but is currently back on the rise (#273 in 2016). Separate from Arthur, Art has swung all over the Top 1000s before it dropped off completely in the 1960s. It gets some Nameberry love though, at #355.


Thelonious Sphere Monk had one of the most unique approaches to jazz piano—and one of the most unique names. The smooth and groovy Thelonious is an Anglicized and Latinized form of the German Tillman (“tiller of the earth”) or Tielo (from a root for “people”). It’s a bold choice, and one that would surely brand your boy as all things Monk. But for the bebop obsessive, this name might sound just the right note.


Charles Mingus was an eclectic jazz bassist and bandleader, and his last name has a lot of verve as a boys’ name. And though it hasn’t appeared on the official baby-name charts, Mingus is not as obscure as you may imagine: Danish model Helena Christensen named her son Mingus after the musician in 1999. Nearby in Sweden, Mingus is sometimes used a pet form of Dominicus, from the Latin “of the Lord” and possible source of Mingus. Mingus might also have emerged as a variant of the Scottish Menzies, a Norman-native surname.


While we’re on unusual jazz surnames, how about Gillespie? It’s a Scottish and Irish name meaning “servant of the bishop,” and is evocative of the head-spinning jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, born John Birks Gillespie. Gillespie isn’t completely unknown as a given name, though, as there was a Mississippi congressman called Gillespie Montgomery. The politician, though, went by the nickname Sonny–as does the legendary, and still gigging, jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins (born Walter).


As we see with Sonny, there are some jazz greats still on the scene. Jazz trumpeter and educator Wynton Marsalis continues to inspire younger people with a love of jazz. And the name Wynton might inspire the name of your own baby boy. Wynton is a snazzy variant of Winton, starting out as an Old English place name meaning “friend’s settlement”; the name enjoyed a brief moment in the Top 1000 in the early 1900s.


BONUS: Here are some juicy finds by Katinka in the Forums this week!

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And the Berries share their all-time favorite names: from Ellen to Kelsey to Pandora. What’s yours?


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