December 2006

Snooky Young: High Brass

Lead trumpet players have always been viewed as the macho men of big-band jazz. The demands of soaring over a 17-piece ensemble, routinely scaling the area around high C and above, have busted the chops of more than one tough guy. The image of the big, brawny lead trumpeter has been so common, in fact, that it was memorialized in a routine that Pete Candoli used to do in the ’40s with Woody Herman, in which—in the finale segment of the tune “Apple Honey”—Candoli would leap onstage in a Superman costume, playing stratospheric high notes over the last chorus.

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Nick Ruechel

Snooky Young

Looking at small, compact Snooky Young, it’s impossible to imagine him in a similar setting. Both his size and the modesty of his manner seem utterly contradictory to the larger-than-life image of lead trumpet playing. Yet he has been universally praised for the clarity and precision of his lead work with ensembles ranging from the Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie bands to the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis and Clayton-Hamilton Orchestras. Add to that the fact that he has also been a much-admired soloist, particularly notable for his plunger-style playing, using a cup mute instead of a plunger.

At 87, Eugene “Snooky” Young isn’t playing much lead these days. But when the Clayton-Hamilton band is in action, Snooky is often up there on the top riser with the rest of the trumpets, playing his part with the same fine-tuned accuracy that has characterized his playing since (gasp!) the late ’30s.

He’s been with the Los Angeles-based ensemble for 20 years. It’s a time span that startled even Young when his good friend, trombonist Ira Nepus, mentioned it during a conversation we had in late October. The trumpeter shook his head in disbelief for a moment, then leaned over and asked Nepus to repeat the date, obviously assuming that his hearing problems had misled him. But Nepus smiled, and repeated, “20 years.”

“Well,” responded Young, “when you’re working in a good band with good musicians and good friends, I guess the time flies.”

Nepus, who often accompanies Young to meetings, serves as an extra pair of ears to compensate for Snooky’s hearing loss which—strangely enough—has not prevented him from continuing to play (although the lead trumpet role in the Clayton-Hamilton aggregation has largely been turned over to younger players such as Bijon Watson). Nepus recalled his first encounter with Young’s lead playing several decades ago in the Doc Severinsen band.

“The first time we worked together,” he said. “I was playing lead trombone, and Snooky was right behind me, playing lead trumpet. His sound felt as though it was shaving off the top of my head—like something I’d never heard in my life. I looked back and saw this little man, this little body, and I couldn’t believe those sounds were coming out of him.”

It’s a reaction that a lot of musicians have had, dating back to Young’s initial gigs with Clarence “Chic” Carter’s band as a teenager out of his hometown of Dayton, Ohio. His first recordings, a year or two later with Jimmie Lunceford, reveal a surprisingly mature clarity to his tone and phrasing—the sort of focus and drive that are essential to the art of lead trumpet playing.

The maturity may be traced in some respect to the fact that Young had started so early on the trumpet. It’s hard to imagine a 5-year-old kid even picking up the instrument, much less playing it. But that’s when Young says he started. And it probably makes sense, given the fact that he grew up in an intensely musical environment, with a family that had its own band, called the Young Snappy Six.

“I’m the third oldest of seven kids,” he recalled. “They all played instruments. My oldest brother Granville—we called him Catfish—played trumpet, and he was much better than I was. He went out with a band once, came back home and never went out again. Got turned off by the whole thing. My youngest brother played drums and I had a sister that sang. My father played saxophone, guitar and banjo, and he taught my mother to play guitar and banjo. Bands like Don Redman tried to get him to go out on the road with them, but he wouldn’t leave his family.” Young recalls, however, that the trumpet wasn’t his first choice.

“At first I said I wanted to play trombone,” he continued, “and then my younger brother up and said he wanted to play trombone. And I said, ‘Well I don’t want to play trombone if he wants to play trombone. A junk man we knew gave me my first horn—a beat-up old cornet. And once I got it, I never went back to wanting to play trombone.”

By the time he was in his late teens, Young was working in Carter’s band alongside Gerald Wilson, who eventually jumped to Jimmie Lunceford. Six months later there was an opening in the trumpet section and Wilson immediately recommended Young for the gig. Despite the high quality of his playing, he was still a relative babe in the woods.

“I was 19 years old,” he said. “I didn’t know I was a lead trumpet player, even though I was playing lead in Chic Carter’s band. But I didn’t realize it until I got to Lunceford and they made me the first trumpet player. And it worked. Then when I went to Basie they put me on lead, and that worked. But I didn’t have that in mind myself, whatsoever.”

Still, he acknowledges that the high-note playing demanded of lead trumpeters “came easy.”

“When I came up,” said Young, “everybody was trying to imitate Louis Armstrong. He was the one who put the range on the trumpet. Back in those days, high C was considered a high note. And Louis Armstrong when right up past that—Eb, E, F. And all of us young guys wanted to do it, too.”

What Snooky doesn’t add is that he did it better than most. But other factors were in play when he made his move from Lunceford to Basie in 1942, and again from 1945 to 1947 (after brief stints with Lionel Hampton and Gerald Wilson) during a period of dramatic changes in jazz. His affection for Louis Armstrong was supplemented by an admiration for Roy Eldridge, and then Dizzy Gillespie. As styles changed, so too did the music of the big bands. But the most significant transition for Young was the move from the ensemble-oriented sound of Lunceford to the solo-driven, propulsive drive of the Basie band.

“It was like night and day, those two bands,” he said. “In fact, I had to learn how to play again when I went to the Basie band. Lunceford’s was a two-beat band. Basie’s was the band that started to swing. The bass would be going, and Jo Jones would just kick his bass drum every now and then, and the guitar and bass would keep on walking. Well, I had to get used to that, since I was coming from a band where the rhythm played every beat.”

Young not only got used to it, he thrived in it, playing in stellar Basie trumpet sections—first with Harry “Sweets” Edison and Buck Clayton, and later with Thad Jones and Joe Newman. But his most poignant memories are of Wendell Culley, perhaps best known for his beautifully crafted solo on the Basie recording of Neal Hefti’s “Lil’ Darlin’.”

“He had a beautiful tone, more classical-like,” said Young. “He was a lot older than me, and he would talk to me and show me a lot of things. Like, he made me practice before I would come to work, because at first I used to just come to work and play. But he broke me from doing that. He said, ‘Warm up a half an hour or an hour before you come to play.’ And I started doing that and I’ve been doing it ever since. Because when you get to work it makes you free to do anything, from the first note you play. A lot of guys don’t trust their horns when they come in. That’s because they haven’t practiced at home.”

It’s the sort of advice that Young has been giving to his own younger associates for decades, warmly offering the benefit of his many rich years of experience. Leading his own band out of Dayton for nearly a decade, from the late 1940s into the ‘50s, he returned to Basie—for the third time—in 1957, became a founding member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, was an active studio musician at NBC, and played in the Tonight Show Orchestra in New York and Los Angeles.

“I learned a lot in all those years,” he said. “And I’ve tried to pass it on: Practice every day and pretty soon it’ll become fun; if you want to keep up with your times, you have to keep up with your instrument; when you play an arrangement, try to feel what the man wrote, because if you can’t feel it, you aren’t going to be able to play it.”

“But the thing that really matters,” concluded Young, “is that a big band is like a family. Everybody’s got to like each other. You got three sections, with the lead trumpet, the lead alto and the lead trombone. You get them three minds leading everybody in the same direction, and your band is gonna be alright.”

Recommended Listening

Snooky Young’s fine work as a lead trumpet can be heard on his recordings with the big bands of Basie, Thad Jones Mel Lewis and Clayton-Hamilton. He only made three recordings under his own name, and each is a delight.

Boys From Dayton (Master Jazz) 1971

Snooky & Marshal’s Album (Concord Jazz) 1978

Horn of Plenty (Concord Jazz) 1979

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