One of the first bebop tunes, devised by Dizzy Gillespie and Kenny Clarke during a five week stint in late 1941 with Ella Fitzgerald's orchestra, "from which they were both simultaneously fired" (Gitler).
"It began", according to jazz historian Scott Deveaux, "as a polyrhythmic figure (probably a drum lick by Clarke) that attracted, as if by gravitation, a melodic contour from the oral tradition. Gillespie first thought of it as a riff figure to "set" behind a soloist in a big-band context, and he used it in this way on a recording as early as 1942 (Lucky Millinder's 'Little John Special', at 2 mins, 20s). Somewhat later – probably in time for the Onyx club band – he began to think of it as a distinct tune, performable by a small combo.
"'Salt Peanuts' seems like the ideal jam session vehicle – an ingenious and witty way of introducing 'I Got Rhythm' changes, with the added attraction of the nonsense catchphrase in the title, a bit of Dada humor guaranteed to puzzle the unhip. It was in this form (complete with the nonsense vocal) that it caught Coleman Hawkins' attention [who was the first to record it, on May 17, 1944]. But that same year a fully orchestrated version of 'Salt Peanuts' also surfaced in the Billy Eckstine band's repertory. On the stages of theaters across the country, 'Salt Peanuts' was heard as a humorous novelty number that showed off the bad boy humor and brilliant trumpet playing of the band's music director [Gillespie].
"Within a few weeks of leaving the Eckstine band, Gillespie recorded 'Salt Peanuts' for Manor Records on January 9, 1945 – his first date as leader of a recording session. The sextet was staffed primarily with colleagues from his stint the previous year on 52nd Street (Don Byas, Clyde Hart and Oscar Pettiford from the Onyx Club band; Trummy Young from the Downbeat). Echoes of the big-band texture are especially resonant in the few places where this three-horn January 9 version diverges from the familiar two-horn Guild version [of May 11, 1945, featuring Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Al Haig, Curley Russell and Sid Catlett], which dispenses with such harmonized passages. As with "a Night in Tunisia,"it is this later, sparer version, with its musical energy concentrated into fleet, superbly executed unison lines, that has survived as an icon of early bop."
The musical motif upon which it is based can be heard both in Glenn Miller's "Wham Re Bop Boom Bam" (August 1, 1941, about the one minute mark) and in a repeated six-note instrumental piano phrase in "Basie Boogie" played by Count Basie (July 2, 1941, around 1 minute, 20s). Writer/critic Martin Williams has even traced parts of the melody to Louis Armstrong's 1930 recording "I'm a Ding Ding Daddy" (especially at 2 minutes, 55s)!
WHITE HOUSE JAZZ FESTIVAL (June 18, 1978)
At this first jazz festival at the White House, President Jimmy Carter, originally a peanut farmer from Georgia, requested that Gillespie play "Salt Peanuts". Dizzy looked down at Carter and said ''I can't do it without him," so Carter joined Dizzy and Max Roach on stage to sing it, the only time a U.S. President has performed a jazz song while in office.
Note: There is no 1940s recording of "Salt Peanuts" with Clarke himself, due to his absence for wartime military service from mid-1943 to early 1946.
Sources: Scott Deveaux's "The birth of bebop: A social and musical history" (1997), Ira Gitler's "Jazz Masters of the 1940s" (1966), various sources quoted in Wikipedia (articles on Salt Peanuts, Jazz Hot).