Originally, I never really had any interest in using the plunger mute as a jazz soloist. I thought it was a gimmick, much like circular breathing and clip-on neon lights (which were the big fad in the early 90’s). In that sense, you could sort of say that the whole plunger mute thing was beneath me. However, that all changed at a rehearsal in the mid 1990’s.
Conrad Johnson Orchestra
I was a member of the Conrad Johnson Orchestra (The Big Blue Sound) for two different stints, one during the late 80’s and the second stint was during the mid 1990’s. The personnel in the trumpet section was a little different that second time, because Barry Lee Hall had returned to Houston and was playing in the band. I vividly remember that these rehearsals became Q&A sessions for the band and Barry.
Note: For those who don’t know, Barry Lee Hall was the trumpet player and later the director of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
One of the questions Barry answered at one of the rehearsals was, “Why did you move back to Houston?”
Giving Back to the Community
Barry told the band that Houston was his home and that he felt like it was important for him to “bring something back to the community.” He was here to pass the torch so to speak. Here was a man who had spent most of his adult life on the road with the famous Duke Ellington Orchestra. He sat next to Cootie Williams and learned all the plunger stuff from the master.
The magnitude of what he was saying hit me like a sledge hammer. Here I was, some absolute nobody, sitting in the trumpet section with someone who wanted to pass the torch. How could I not change my attitude about using the plunger in my solos anymore.
Please don’t misunderstand me about any of this. I am not saying that Barry Lee and I were best buds. The truth is, I didn’t get to know him nearly as well as I should have. I quit the band a few months later and I always felt guilty for doing that. I felt as if I had let them down, but I made a principled decision and had to stick to it. So do not think that I am trying to name drop or anything like that. Yes, I do think Barry and I were pretty good friends, but we weren’t close. I hope I’m making that much clear enough.
But to be in that rehearsal when Barry was talking about giving back to the community, I actually felt (and still feel) that I had a responsibility to take what I learned from him and now do my part to share it the way he did. I hope that makes sense.
Passing the Torch
I’ve been using the plunger in my solos for about fifteen years now. I no longer consider it a gimmick. There are certain expressive sounds the trumpet makes with a plunger that cannot be reproduced otherwise. Thus, to me the plunger mute is a means of expression. The plunger mute ads and emotional depth to the music that is unmatched by the open horn.
I am honored to have been in the rehearsal when Barry told us his story. My short time playing with him was indeed career changing and it would be wrong if I never acknowledged his influence in my playing.
Trumpet Plunger Mute Sample
The following video is made from a live recording I did with the Blue Gnus. We recorded When You’re Smiling and I use the trumpet plunger mute throughout. I don’t do the plunger stuff exactly the same way as Barry used to do it. As we do in all things Jazz, I had to find my own style. Yes, there is a lot of Barry’s influence in my style. But when you listen to me on a plunger solo, you’re not going to say, “hey, that sounds just like Barry Lee Hall.”