KINGS, QUEENS, FATHA’S, LORDS AND LADIES
In the New Orleans cornet tradition, Buddy Bolden was King. Sidney Bechet once wrote that “everyone in New Orleans knew about him. He was a real walk-around man. He could play, that was true; but he was more a showman: he was a hell of a good showman.” After Bolden was hospitalized in 1907, his mantle passed to Freddie Keppard. Keppard held the title of cornet King of New Orleans for years, before losing it to Joe Oliver on the bandstand in 1916.
In the popular press, Paul Whiteman was the King of Jazz. Benny Goodman was the King of Swing. Pianist and singer Nat Cole was a King, too. Before jazz, there was the blues: Mamie Smith was its Queen, Bessie its Empress. The Queen of Gospel was Mahalia Jackson. The King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin.
Not all musical sovereigns were Kings and Queens. Ellington was a Duke; Basie, a Count. Billy Holliday was Lady Day, and Ella Fitzgerald was the First Lady of Song. Early in his career, Charles Mingus was a Baron. Miles Davis was a Prince (of Darkness). Oscar Peterson was Maharaja. Lester Young was Prez. Pianist Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe’s nickname, Jelly Roll Morton, was a euphemism for male anatomy. Even he couldn't resist penning the tune “Mr. Jelly Lord.”
Our music has a parentage. Jo Jones was Papa. Louis Armstrong was Pops. Hines was an Earl, of course, but also Fatha. Ma Rainey was the Mother of the Blues; Blind Lemon Jefferson, its Texan Father.
Sometimes musicians’ appelations took up religious language. Thelonious was the High Priest of Bop, though he is most famously remembered as a Monk. John Coltrane once said in an interview that he wanted to be a Saint. In the late 1960s he brought Sanders, a Pharoah, into his fold. Nina Simone was the High Priestess of Soul. To Fats Waller and Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum was God.
The phrase musical royalty doesn’t have the cultural currency it used to. Perhaps it was a sign of changing times that Frank Sinatra was not a King, but the Chairman of the Board. Still, there have been scattered claims to the throne since the 1960s. In my parents’ generation, the King of Rock ’n’ Roll was Elvis Presley, though my father (to his credit) disputes that. In my generation, the King of Pop was Michael Jackson. In the 1980s, Madonna was the Queen of Pop, and even today, Gaga is a Lady.
At first glance it might seem that soul music has kept the tradition alive. Contemporary critics say that Adele is the Queen of Soul. But that was Aretha Franklin. Indeed, soul had a panoply of royalty: a King, Otis Redding; an Empress, Gladys Knight; a Godfather, James Brown; a First Family, The Five Stairsteps; and a Motown Prince, Marvin Gaye.
As a musician, I have no aspirations to the heights of royalty. I could dream of being a courtier, though in truth I’m a humble subject of the court. Anyway, such talk is the stuff of dreams and premodern fantasy. Being a royal subject presupposes a living royalty and today they are in short supply. One might argue this is a good thing. The influence of kings is onerous: kings abuse their subjects; they proscribe their conduct with laws; they establish taxes; they punish. All true, but the royalty I remember—Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane—are the most beloved group of monarchs America has ever known. In an age without Kings and Queens, Priests and Fatha’s, what are we? Some would say free. I’m not so sure.