Tricky Sam Nanton

Tricky Sam Nanton

From Wikipedia
Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton
Duke Ellington - Hurricane Ballroom - trio.jpg
From the left: Tricky Sam NantonH. CarneyW. Jones. Hurricane Ballroom, April 1943.
(Nanton and Jones with a plunger mute).
Background information
Birth name Joseph Nanton
Born February 1, 1904
Origin United States New York City
Died July 20, 1946 (aged 42)
Genres JazzSwing
Instruments trombone
Associated acts Duke Ellington

Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton (February 1, 1904 – July 20, 1946) was a famous trombonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

Early life

Nanton was born in New York City and began playing professionally in Washington with bands led by Cliff Jackson and Elmer Snowden. He joined Ellington in 1926.

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. Nanton, along with Lawrence Brown, anchored one of the outstanding jazz trombone sections of the swing era, their different, complementary talents and personalities opening up a wide range of trombone sounds and solos in the early Ellington bands.

The wah-wah

Nanton was one of the great pioneers of the plunger mute. Together with his musical soulmate Bubber Miley on trumpet, Nanton is largely responsible for creating the characteristic Wah-wah sounds copied by many later brass soloists in the swing era. Their highly expressive growl and plunger sounds were the main ingredient in the band’s famous “jungle” sound that evolved during the band’s late 1920s engagement at Harlem‘s “Cotton Club“. After Miley’s premature departure in 1929, Nanton taught Cootie Williams, Miley’s successor, some of the growl and plunger techniques that Miley had used. Williams became a plunger virtuoso in his own right and helped the band retain its distinctive sound.

Many people asked Nanton how he acquired and formulated his unique style and sounds. In 1921, Nanton heard Johnny Dunn playing the trumpet with a plunger, which Nanton realized could be used to similar effect on the trombone.

When Joe Nanton joined the Ellington band, he was eager to solo. Nanton had been playing with the band for several weeks before the jovial alto saxophonist Otto “Toby” Hardwickconvinced 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 time he’d say ‘wa-wa,’ I was saying ‘wa-wa’ with my mouth, following him all the way through.”

“Tricky Sam”

Sensing Nanton’s impressive manual dexterity the fun-loving Hardwick, ever inclined to tag friends with fitting nicknames, dubbed Nanton “Tricky Sam”: “anything to save himself trouble—he was tricky that way.”

From his early days with the Ellington band, Tricky Sam was featured regularly. But he and Miley worked especially well in combination, often playing in harmony or “playing off each other” (embellishing and developing the musical theme of the preceding soloist into one’s own new musical idea). Nanton and Miley successfully incorporated plunger skills in their playing to evoke moods, people, or images. It was their work together as much as their individual talents that earned Tricky Sam Nanton and Bubber Miley their place as the first musicians widely recognized for their plunger sounds and styles.

The celebrated brass growl effect was vividly 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 raunchy, earthy sounds of their growls and mutes. Among the best examples of their style are “East St. Louis Toodle-oo,” “The Blues I Love to Sing,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Goin’ to Town,” and “Doin’ the Voom-Voom.”

While other brass players became adept at growl and plunger techniques, Nanton’s sound was all his own. He developed, in addition to other tricks in his bag, an astonishing “ya-ya” sound with the plunger mute. Like a chef zealously guarding the recipe of a sensational dish, Nanton kept the details of his technique a secret, even from his band mates, until his premature death.

Some ingredients in Nanton’s unique “ya-ya” sound, however, are apparent: inserting a nonpareil trumpet straight mute into the bell, using a large plumber’s plunger outside the bell, and “speaking” into the instrument while playing. This sort of speaking involved changing the cavity of the mouth while silently reproducing different vowel sounds without actually vibrating the vocal cords. By shaping the soft palate to change from “ee” to “ah,” Nanton was able to make his trombone sound like a voice singing “ya.”  His palette of near-vocal sounds was radical for its time and helped produce the unique voicings in Ellington compositions, such as “The Mooche” and “Mood Indigo“.


Nanton died from a stroke  in San Francisco, California on July 20, 1946, while on tour with the Ellington Orchestra. Nanton’s death, the first of an active Ellington musician, was an enormous loss for the Ellington Orchestra. While later trombonists, including Tyree Glenn, Nanton’s replacement, have tried to duplicate Tricky Sam’s plunger techniques, no one has been able to reproduce his legendary style. Nanton had a wide variety of expression, and his intricate techniques were not well documented.

Fortunately, Nanton left behind a legacy of many outstanding recordings (unlike Miley) and a lasting influence on the art of the jazz trombone.


2 Responses to “Tricky Sam Nanton”

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