The Baby Name Buff: Jazz Edition

Guest Blogger: Kyle Garton-Gundling

Jazz is a uniquely American musical style that can also be a great source of inspiration for names. These possibilities are taken from famous artists and song titles:



The funky, herky-jerky phrases of Thelonius (Thel-own-ee-us) Monk’s piano playing were as innovative and unique as his name, which, while not entirely a neologism, is strongly associated with him and no one else. This name could suit a baby boy who marches to the beat of his own drum or who made syncopated kicks in the womb. Nicknames could include Theo, Thel, or Thelly.


Duke Ellington defined the big band jazz sound for half a century, and while his compositions such as It Don’t Mean a Thing and Take the A Train are well-known, he is overlooked as an accomplished pianist in his own right. If you want your boy to have an endearing sense of style, this classy-sounding name could be the one for you.


Virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis (Mar-saa-lis) has made his mark with a special combination of soulful swing and meticulous refinement. This name could serve as inspiration for a boy to be well-rounded and have a capacious imagination. It is also not to be confused with Marsala or Masala, both of which are delicious, but not nearly as good at improvising over “Giant Steps” as Marsalis. Nicknames could be Mar, Mars, or Sal.


This strong-sounding boy’s name comes from pianist Dave Brubeck (Broo-beck), whose pivotal composition “Take Five” is the biggest-selling jazz single of all time, and one of very few popular tunes besides the Mission: Impossible theme to be written in 5/4 time. Often overshadowed by his quartet’s star saxophonist Paul Desmond, Brubeck knew both how to solo and how to blend in and accentuate the strengths of his colleagues. Your little Brubeck could learn from his namesake how to skillfully navigate individual and group roles. Nicknames include Rubin and Beck.


This could be a festive name with which to celebrate your unique little girl. Holiday’s unorthodox vocals go against technical norms but are so sinewy and enticing that they have given us definitive recordings of bedrock tunes like “Strange Fruit,” “Summertime,” and “Blue Moon.” With nickname options including Holly, Hol, Lida, or Day, this name can convey breeziness and originality.


If you don’t think jazz is improvisational enough already, you can listen to Ornette (Oar-net) Coleman’s radical album Free Jazz, which includes jazzy improvisation but also does away with the underlying shared musical form that usually defines jazz playing. While not my personal favorite, this creative cacophony shows just how daring this musician could be. So if you want your child to be unafraid to take risks and venture into the unknown, this name would fit the bill perfectly.  Although this namesake is a man, the typically feminine –ette suffix could make this name work for either sex.


Jazz may be an American style, but every jazz guitarist lives in the shadow of the European Django (Jang-go) Reinhardt, who singlehandedly established the guitar as an important jazz instrument as early as the 1920s. His mastery of improvising melodic lines makes him a charming and virtuosic listen to this day. This name also has a contemporary referent in the 2012 Quentin Tarantino film Django Unchained, an intense revenge film with plenty of that typical Tarantino violence. Parents considering this name are thus left with two highly contrasting associations.


John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespe (Guh-less-pee) is known for playing a trumpet with a bent horn, an accidental bit of “damage” that turned out to produce a unique sound he liked. This name, then, could suit a boy who is raised with the aspiration to turn accidents or apparent flaws into something beautiful. Possible nicknames include Gil or Gilly.


Speaking of Dizzie Gillespe, another great name option comes from one of his signature protegées, Arturo Sandoval (Sand-uh-vaul). Sandoval specializes in Latin and bebop jazz, but is a master of all musical styles. So this name could be good for a boy upon whom his parents wish a balance between specialization and breadth.


The charismatic band leader Cab Calloway (Cal-uh-way) is best known for his rendition of “Minnie the Mooch,” which was featured in The Blues Brothers.Civic-minded parents-to-be, take heart: the song describes, but does not praise, a mooch. So there is a good chance that a child with this name will grow up to be, in fact, quite self-sufficient.



The name of this North African nation gets special mention in the famous Dizzie Gillespe song “A Night in Tunisia.” The song’s most distinctive feature is the stylistic contrast between the straight-eights A section and swinging B section, which might be interpreted as a musical representation of the country’s diversity. Moreover, a quartet of factions in Tunisia were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011.” Consider this name if you want a child who can unite disparate parties.


This beachside neighborhood in Rio de Janiero, Brazil has become musically immortalized in “The Girl from Ipanema,” most famously recorded by Astrud Gilberto. The titular girl is aloof to the love of her admirer, such that “when she passes he smiles, but she doesn’t see.” This could be an elegant girl’s name for one who will be highly sought after.


This celestial name has a robust pedigree in jazz standards, with at least five songbook classics including it: “How High the Moon,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Blue Moon,” “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” and “Moon River.” This name could capture the aspiration for a cool and deep character in a child of either sex.


This is a great-sounding name that bears risks of cultural appropriation. In fact, composer Ray Noble had intended the piece as the first part of a five-piece Indian Suite, but as far as I can tell, the song has no particular connection to the music of the Native American tribe it was named after. Nevertheless, the name sounds too cool to leave off the list, and it can foster conversations around what cultural guidelines should go into the names we choose.


The jazz standard “Stella by Starlight” has many versions—fast, slow, and medium—showing that this beautiful girls’ name can roll off the tongue at any tempo. Nicknames options include Star, Starr, Arla, and Arli.


A rondo is a piece of music with a core phrase or segment that keeps returning. But in this context, this selection comes from Dave Brubeck’s strikingly original tune “Blue Rondo à la Turk.” The only jazz piece with nine-beat measures, this tune was “[i]nspired by Turkish street music and multi-rhythmic African traditions that use 9/8 time and other time signatures radically different from the standard 4/4 rhythm of American jazz,” according to PBS jazz critic Hedrick Smith. This name thus bears a legacy of cross-cultural synthesis that could inspire a cosmopolitan boy.


You might think that a tune named for the root “dox” would have to play it straight, as in ortho-dox (“straight doctrine”). And yet this swinging tune by sax great Sonny Rollins is anything but stiff or stuffy; the playful –y ending riffs on the rigidity of doxa. So this name could be an unorthodox inspiration for parents who want their child to almost play it straight, but with just the right amount of subversive twist.


This upper Manhattan neighborhood has been so central to African American innovations in art and culture that a great number of jazz songs include it in its name or lyrics, most notably “Take the A Train” (“To go to sugar hill way up in Harlem”), Drop Me Off In Harlem, Harlem Congo, and Harlem Nocturne. This unisex name could be good for a baby that’s always on the cutting edge.

Update: 5/15/19 – For the first time, Harlem is on the (boys’) top 1,000 list, at #985 for 2018.


This jazz standard is named for a flowering tree introduced to Cuba from Madagascar. With its expansive, ferny leaves and bright red flowers, it’s little wonder that, as the song’s lyrics state, “your branches speak to me of love.” This name could work for parents who want a floral name but are interested in moving beyond the usual choices like Iris, Rose, and so on. Although Poinciana’s floral associations would traditionally code this name as feminine, its sound would lend itself to either gender, though its nicknames Cia or Ana do seem to be more fitting for girls than boys.


Who could ask for anything more?

Which name has the most swing? Tell us what you think in the comments!

Photo credit: Alan E

Author: thebabynamebuff

Hi, I'm Vickie. I'm a baby name enthusiast, and I'm excited to share and discuss with others the unique baby names I find. Besides talking and writing about baby names all day long, I also enjoy spending time with family, hiking, astronomy, reading (mostly science fiction and dystopias), and all things Star Trek. (Are you noticing a theme?) I currently live in Champaign, IL with my husband, Kyle, and my son, Felix.

One thought on “The Baby Name Buff: Jazz Edition”

  1. Thelonius is my favorite…I like the nickname Theo. Great guest blog, Kyle. I only had to look up a few words…lol. Very interesting information, much of which I was not previously aware.

    Liked by 1 person

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