Why (and which) bandleaders are called 'professor' or 'perfesser'?

Every so often, I come upon the word ‘professor’ (variably ‘perfesser’) used to denote the leader of a band. Obviously he isn’t a ‘real’ professor in the academic sense, but the usage is common enough and old enough nobody seems to complain. Who is so called and why?

Not sure exactly when this started, but bandleader Kay Kayser took literal advantage of it in the late 1920’s and 1930’s. He often dressed in academic robes and wore a mortarboard hat to lead his musicians, whom he addressed as “students”.

The origin of that kind of thing is the 19th century(in the US, I believe). Speaking in a kind of dialect to sound folksy was not uncommon amongst literate writers of the time.

I can’t find an earlier example in a newspaper than 1885(and it wasn’t talking about a band/orchestra leader), but the general concept was very common.

Kay Kyser was generally (self-referentially) called “professor.” The College of Music Knowledge.

The leader of a band or orchestra was often a classically trained musician, typically a pianist or violinist (the “highest class” instruments, then as now). Often the rest were brass or wind band musicians and not so well trained. So the leader was a kind of “professor,” ie, the “longhaired” European-trained musician.

That said, I can’t think of other leaders who used “Prof.” as part of their billing. It was often used as a title of respect for Black pianists in ragtime and early jazz - typically virtuosi or technically impressive players.

As far as Kyser, he was strictly a genius organizer and showman. His big break was as creator (and “Professor”) of the Kollege of Musical Knowledge—first a stage show, then a radio contest, then an immensely popular show at military installations and war bond drives during WW2 (they raised over $1 billion in bonds). Kay might be the only one of the big bandleaders who never learned to play an instrument - he couldn’t even carry a tune!

Buster Smith, the saxophonist who some say was Charlie Parker’s first teacher, was known far and wide as “Professor Buster Smith.” He taught many musicians in the Southwest US, though he held no degree.

Rush drummer/lyricist Neil Peart is ofter referred to as “The Professor”.

That’s right – you’re wrong. It was the Kollege of Musical Knowledge.

Ah, nostalgia for the Good Old Days, when classical musicians were denigrated by being called longhairs.

Similarly, I’ve heard several jazz musicians referred to as “Doctor” So-and-So.

While we’re on the subject, at the end of every episode of Jim Cullem’s Riverwalk Jazz, the host says “Good night, Doctor Jazz.” Who is Dr. Jazz?

He’s got what you need, you know he has.

I have no idea about an answer, but in the musical Gypsy, Mama Rose calls the conductor “Professor”.

“Fess” Whatley
(Fess is an old-timey nickname for Professor.) He taught many Black musicians in Birmingham, AL, among them Erskine Hawkins and Sun Ra.

In circus parlance, the player of a calliope is traditionally addressed as “Professor”. So is the puppeteer of a “Punch and Judy” show. I don’t know why.

It’s a 1927 song written by Joe Oliver and first made famous by Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers. Lots of cover versions of this done over the years by different groups.

I vaguely recall a PBS documentary on either rag-time music in general or Scott Joplin in particular. I definitely recall the statement that cat house and saloon piano players were generally referred to as “professor”.

In High School I was in a jazz band led by the late Jimmy Coe (a fairly well known Indianapolis sax player). From time to time he would refer to various members of the band (most often the drummer or the pianist) as “professor”. As I recall he was often being a little sarcastic in it’s usage. I also heard other people refer to Mr. Coe as professor, but at the time I just thought it was because he was senior to all the other adult members of the program in both years and experience. I never made the connection of using the term as a band leader.

Now that I think about it more, I suppose it’s was pretty darned snarky for him to call his students ‘professor’, I’m glad I never had that honor.

And let’s not forget Professor Harold Hill from The Music Man.