Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton was born in New York City on Feburary 1, 1904; his parents were from the West Indies and he grew up in the San Juan Hill section of the city.1 Little is known about his childhood, except that he was an avid reader and that as an adult, Nanton had “owned hundreds of books on the most erudite subjects, ranging from psychology to philosophy, from history to astronomy.”2 He was apparently a well-educated man, or at least knowledgeable on many subjects, based on an interview with Rex Stewart, fellow Ellington band member and colleague. Stewart recalls Nanton knowing “how to make home brew and how to use a slide rule. He could recite poetry by ancient poets that most of us never knew existed, and he knew Shakespeare.”3
Before joining the Ellington Band in 1926, Nanton worked at many establishments and nightclubs in New York. Like other Harlem brass players during this time, he traveled from club to club with a fellow musician often referred to as a running mate. His running mate was Louis Metcalf, who also joined Ellington’s band. Nanton recorded his first solo with Duke Ellington on June 21, 1926; he would play with Ellington for the next two decades until his death in July of 1946.
Nanton’s technique with the plunger and growl was put to use extensively in the Ellington band. While his earliest solos were on the “open” horn, without the use of mutes or growls, his later solos tended to use those techniques almost exclusively. This was not due to a lack of agility on the trombone however, since his earliest “open” solos display a facility similar to that of Miff Mole.
The plunger or plumber’s helper is credited as being used as a mute first by King Oliver on the cornet. This style influenced Johnny Dunn, a New York trumpeter, who tried to claim being the first to use the technique, “…well, maybe in New York” in 1921.4 Nanton said he heard Dunn playing that year and decided to try the technique on trombone.5 By manipulating the plunger, the performer can create “oo,” “ah,” and “wah” sounds. By the time Nanton joined the Ellington band he had worked up an extensive repertoire of effects with the plunger including a “ya” sound that since has not been accurately replicated, and used them in combination with the growl. During the plunger soloist tradition of the Ellington band, three types of physical manipulation were used to produce the growl: flutter tonguing, and actual vocal growl, and multiphonics. When combined with the plunger, these effects can produce an effect that gives the illusion or impression of speech. A modern version of this technique can be heard in the Peanuts television specials, with the portrayal of Charlie Brown’s teacher.
Nanton was not the only performer in the Ellington band to utilize the plunger technique; upon hearing its effect, Ellington incorporated into his music in general, which gave rise to “Jungle” music. Nanton, however, was responsible for its application to the trombone, particularly in solo work.