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John Clayton Remembers Snooky Young

A leading bassist on one of the great trumpeters

John Clayton
Snooky Young performing with the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra at the 2010 Playboy Jazz Festival

People lucky enough to have sat next to Snooky Young consistently say he was the best lead player ever. I have heard this from Jon Faddis, Sweets Edison, Marvin Stamm, Clay Jenkins, Oscar Brashear, Bobby Bryant-the list is endless. Everyone has different things to say about what made him such an icon. I always noticed two things: the vocal quality in his playing and his energy. He performed his lead parts as if he were singing. Listen to where and how he would use vibrato, shakes, falls, dynamics and articulation-he’s singing! And the energy behind it would make his song go through your bones: the tone, the force and the intensity. I enjoyed listening to the tips he would give other lead players, like, “Don’t play so loud! You’re the lead player. Let them come to you!”

He remained a classy but downhome kind of guy. His clothes were always neat, dignified and fashionable; his ego was balanced. He led a band in the ’40s that featured his good friend Lester Young and Lady Day. As Snooky would joke, “Who was that singer? I can’t remember her name. You know her! Who was she? Oh, yeah-Billie Holiday!” Not only did Billie sing in his band, she would prepare pigs’ feet for Snooky and Prez.

Trumpeter Clay Jenkins stood at Snooky’s side and was always there in case Snooky needed some assistance as a guest clinician or teacher. “I remember people would ask Snooky for advice or words of wisdom,” Clay says. “He would tell them, ‘Practice every day. Be nice to people.'” Snooky practiced every day for at least two hours.

Snooky was a family man. His wife and children were always there to support him, and he them. This was evident in his playing. Pick any ballad recording of Snooky and his kindness and warm heart emerge from his horn. The fact that he could excite the entire band with his sound and verve is something that most musicians recognize. The true Snooky fans identified the greatness of his ballad playing.

Toward the end of his life, his hearing deteriorated. I’ll never forget him coming to me at a Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra rehearsal and saying, “I’m having a hard time with my hearing, but I hope you won’t fire me! This is my favorite band and I want to stay here.” I was shocked and speechless. Fire him? Never. Snooky ultimately left the band on his own terms.

Originally Published