Born: February 1, 1904 | Died: 1946 Primary Instrument: Trombone
A native of the West Indies, Nanton joined the Ellington orchestra in 1926, as a trombonist. He was a key player in the development of the bands overall sound and also remembered for his use of the plunger mute.
Joe Nanton, was born, in 1904. His professional career as a trombonist began in Washington with pianist Cliff Jackson. From 1923 to 1924 he worked with Frazier's Harmony Five. A year later he performed with banjoist Elmer Snowden. At age 22 Joe Nanton found his niche in Duke Ellington's Orchestra when he reluctantly took the place of his friend Charlie Irvis. He remained a member of the orchestra until his early death in 1946.
Many people asked Nanton how he acquired and formulated his style. In 1921, he heard Johnny Dunn playing the trumpet with a plunger, and thought the plunger would also sound good when used with the trombone.
When Joe Nanton joined the Ellington band he was anxious and ready to play a solo. He had been playing with the band for several weeks before Duke Ellington let him take a solo. Luckily, alto saxophonist Toby Hardwick convinced Ellington to let him play. According to Barney Bigard, ...he [Joe Nanton] grabbed his plunger. He could use that thing, too. It talked to you. I was sitting there, looking up at him, and every timed he'd say 'wa-wa,' I was saying 'wa-wa' with my mouth, following him all the way through.
Because of his ability, Nanton earned the nickname Tricky Sam. Toby Hardwick named him Tricky Sam because what someone else could do with two hands, Tricky Sam could do with one. Anything to save himself trouble- he was tricky that way.
Tricky Sam soon teamed up with Bubber Miley and was soloing on a regular basis. They worked together, playing in harmony and playing off each other Playing off each other refers to taking the musical idea of the preceding soloist and developing it until it becomes one's own new musical idea. Tricky Sam and Bubber Miley were the first musicians to get wide recognition for their unique plunger sounds and style. There playing almost always represented a mood, person, or picture. Together, they set the characteristic tone and expressiveness of the other brass soloists in the band.
Nanton and Miley developed the band's famous jungle effects through their use of the growl and plunger.
The growl effect is best described by Duke Ellington's son, Mercer Ellington.
There are three basic elements in the growl: the sound of the horn, a guttural gargling in the throat, and the actual note that is hummed. The mouth has to be shaped to make the different vowel sounds, and above the singing from the throat, manipulation of the plunger adds the wa-wa accents that give the horn a language. I should add that in the Ellington tradition a straight mute is used in the horn besides a plunger outside, and this results in more pressure. Some players use only the plunger, and then the sound is usually coarser, less piercing, and not as well articulated.
Nanton and Miley gave the Ellington Orchestra the reputation of being one of the dirtiest jazz groups. Many listeners were excited by the 'dirty' or earthy sounds that were obtained through their use of growls and mutes. Their unique sounds became one of the orchestra's most notable trademarks. Evidence of their style of playing can be heard on recordings of Ellington's “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” “The Blues I Love to Sing,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Goin' to Town,” and “Doin' the Voom-Voom.”
In 1946, Joe Tricky Sam Nanton died after suffering a stroke a few months prior. This was a big loss for the Ellington Orchestra because his sound was so strikingly original. Further, he was the first musician to die while employed by the Ellington Orchestra. Very few musicians had that rare gift of communication through music as Joseph Tricky Sam Nanton. Other trombonists, such as Tyree Glenn, Nanton's replacement, have tried to duplicate Tricky Sam's plunger technique but no one has been able to reproduce his legendary style because there is not much documentation on the intricacies of his method.
Source: James Nadal