The trombone was once regarded as the voice of God and long considered grand and noble, but the early 20th century saw development of different, more raucous trombone sounds.
Duke Ellington and his first great trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton developed the “jungle sound.” In Nanton’s hands, the trombone learned to growl with a plunger and mute.
Ellington’s band had the reputation of having the “dirtiest” sound of any jazz band. Although many pioneers of jazz knew and loved “high class” music like opera, the early jazz audiences probably didn’t. While more “refined” audiences may have found the jungle sound repellant, jazz audiences loved it.
It would be easy to think that Nanton growled and carried on because of limited technique or poor education. It would also be wrong. Nanton’s earliest recorded solos with Ellington show a facility and technique comparable to Miff Mole.
Little documentation about Nanton’s childhood or education exists, but he must have been well educated. He eventually acquired a personal library of hundreds of books and could speak knowledgeably on multiple subjects, which included sciences, social sciences, history, and philosophy.
Rex Stewart, Nanton’s colleague with Ellington, recalled that Nanton knew “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.”
Jazz pioneer cornetist King Oliver is credited with being the first brass player to use a plumber’s aid as a mute. In 1921, the 17-year-old Nanton heard trumpeter Johnny Dunn using a plunger in New York. He thought it would work well on trombone. At first, by his own admission, he sounded terrible. For one thing, when the plunger closes the bell completely, the pitch goes sharp.
In an interview, he observed that trombonists “have to violate all the principles of trombone playing to use the plunder properly. Therefore, it is not advisable to use the plunger and try to be a good trombone player unless the musician is going to use that style exclusively. . . After doing this over a period of years, that’s all you’re good for.”
By nothing more than manipulating the plunger, a trombonist can produce various vowel sounds. Avant garde composer Robert Erickson wrote a trombone solo called General Speech in which a trombonist using a plunger and playing only a few different notes delivers an actual speech by Douglas MacArthur. Erickson did not intend for the audience to understand the speech, but they’ll probably understand a word or two and certainly hear the different vowels.
Nanton’s growl relies on more than simply the plunger. To begin with, he used it in conjunction with a straight mute. He also hummed notes to produce multiphonics, flutter tongued, produced what Mercer Ellington called “a guttural gargling in the throat,” and shaped various vowels with his mouth.
Between the time he first figured out how to play in tune with a plunger until he joined Ellington in 1926, he developed an extensive repertoire of effects no trombonist had thought of before, including many that no one else has since figured out how to duplicate. Nanton often traded solos with trumpeter Bubber Miley, who had his own repertoire of growls.
Nanton died of a stroke in 1946, the first death among Ellington’s musicians. Ellington hired Tyree Glenn to fill Nanton’s seat, but no one could fill his shoes.
Like many of Ellington’s other soloists, Nanton composed some of the pieces he played. Here’s his “Jungle Blues.”
This video of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” is the only one I have found that has a moving image of the performance.