After playing (or struggling with) the trumpet since I was 14, I finally decided to learn how to use a plumber’s friend for something other than its intended purpose. For five dollars, my neighborhood hardware store sold me what I needed. I unscrewed the wooden handle and, voila!—a plunger mute. The one you see here is fancy and probably came from a music store. Mine is red, the small kind used in sinks.
Take my word for it after two days of experimentation, plunger technique on a brass instrument is as demanding as it looks. My trumpet teacher left town, so I did the logical internet thing and found involuntary teachers on the web, beginning with two champions of the plunger style who learned from early masters like Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams and the great trombonist Tricky Sam Nanton. Here is Ryan Kisor, lead trumpet of the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, summoning up Williams’ spirt in Duke Ellington’s “Concerto For Cootie.”
Snooky Young (1919-2011) perfected his plunger mute skill as a member of the Jimmy Lunceford band in the 1930s. He went on to play with nearly the full complement of important bands; Lionel Hampton, Benny Carter, Gerald Wilson, Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Thad Jones-Mel Lewis, Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland. He had several stays with Count Basie. Young became a national figure as a member of Doc Severinsen’s Tonight show band. In 1989, on his 70th birthday, Johnny Carson singled him out to perform one of the Lunceford band’s big hits.
After studying Kisor and Young and considering my early plunger attempts, there was only one thing I could say: Wa-wa.