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.