Taking The Plunge

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.

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  1. says

    That Tonight Show Band was so good. I wish there were a video available of every performance they did – or at least a collection of some of the best. Their rhythmic precision is simply incomparable. One can see the first trombone Bruce Paulson in the video. Three years ago my wife (who is also a trombonist) did a series of video interviews in which she asked a bunch of established musicians how they helped their students to be more creative. Bruce was one. He said that the essence of musical creativity is rhythm. You can see the video here:


    Thanks for these great blogs.

  2. says

    What a nice pair of examples! Wonderful to have such a nice long taste of Snooky and the band.
    Shaughnessy really knew how to play that music.
    Clark Terry is also a master of the plunger, and has been known to replicate some very salty speech with it.
    I hope there are some examples somewhere on film.

  3. says

    Yeah, that’s what I always tell my students: ‘A seemingly “wrong” note sounds worse if it’s played out of time; you can remedy the situation when you play a wrong note extra strongly in rhythm.’ — Just listen to John Coltrane at ‘Round Midnight: He’s trying out, as he is always exploring new ground; some “wrong” notes for sure, but what phrasing, what swing. Now, try to find those “wrong” notes.

    (Mr. Leicht refers to the Bruce Paulson interview to which there is a link in William Osborne’s comment above.—DR)

    You can do so many things with a plunger mute. It’s such a great tool for making all kinds of sounds: The whistle of a train, the oink of a pig, or the neigh of a horse … wonderful!

    Bubber Miley, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, ‘Tricky Sam’ Nanton — My heroes! A bent tube and a plunger. That’s all you need for mesmerizing the chicks ’round the world. Take ‘Hot Lips’ Page. He’s my man.

  4. Mick Davis (Shropshire, England) says

    Hmmm, I’m willing to bet you found the experience to be quite draining.