Masterclass with Art Baron: An Introduction to the Plunger

By Bob Bernotas • July 01, 1999 • 7 min read

The following article was told to Bob Bernotas by Art Baron.

Art BaronThe important thing is to do a lot of listening before you do anything else and get a sense of what plunger work is about. It's a whole emotional thing. You really have to want to speak through the horn.

Then you've got to get some equipment. Actually any plunger will do. If you're going to do it like Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton or Booty Wood or Quentin Jackson or Tyree Glenn, you also need a little mute called a "nonpareil." It's a trumpet straight mute which, I think, they stopped making in the '50s. If you have any older trumpet-player friends you can ask around. I've put up notes on bulletin boards and in music stores, and I've found three or four that way.

The Tom Crown mute company makes a copy of the nonpareil, which is quite readily available, and it's very good. If I do a blindfold test, I know the difference between the two--the metal's different from what it was in the '40s--but it's 99% of what you need.

Now, you've got to build up the corks so the mute fits in the horn just right. If it's a medium-bore horn, you won't have to build it up much. If it's a big horn, like a Bach 36 or 42, it's going to take some work. It's not always a perfect match.

Lawrence Brown used a different mute that's readily available from Humes & Berg called the pixie mute. There are some guys that use it very well--Steve Turre uses one. And you could certainly play plunger without a little mute--a lot of people do. For instance, if you listen to J.C. Higginbotham, guys like that, they used the plunger pretty much without anything inside it. Al Grey might play with that pixie mute in there for parts, then take a solo without it. Sometimes he takes a solo with it in, too.

As the note is coming out, you can start with the plunger in and pull out. If you do it this way, it's going to sound like "wah" or "yah", like Tricky Sam. If you start with the plunger out and pull it in, it's "hi-yee, hi-yee," which is what Butter Jackson did. Butter played the plunger "inside out." It sounds like he's saying, "hi-a-kaw-a, hi-yee, hi-yee." You can do it either way.

Tyree Glenn had a neat little lip vibrato and a buoyant kind of playing. And he's the only one I ever heard do the plunger vibrato, where you take the plunger move it about half an inch back and forth over the bell to make another vibrato.

Now when you're using that little mute, it makes the horn very sharp. Some people like to cut a hole in the plunger where the stick went. They do that for intonation, although I don't like that. After you play it for a while, you'll learn how to compensate. Until I knew better, I used to pull my tuning slide way out anytime I was about to take a plunger solo. I was working with Butter Jackson and he saw me doing that and said, "Man, leave you're tuning slide where it is, and just push your positions out a little bit." So adjust with your chops and your slide positions.

Now with the little mute, your range is limited. The partial that starts on the F below middle C--nothing comes out there. It's good from the Bb partial up, the Bb right below middle C. There are a couple of funny little pedal tones you can use with the mute, but you rarely play below middle C with it. You can go down to A and G below it, but it doesn't speak as well, and you can go up to the C and D in the staff. So, the range is about an octave, but if you listen to Tricky Sam, he said a lot in an octave.

That little mute can kick your butt for a while. It creates a lot of back pressure. It messes with your chops. You've got to build up your stamina to play it. So you don't want to play a hard, plunger solo and then go play some soft, high lead stuff. If you're a real precision, quiet player, used to playing very soft, it's maybe not for you, because you're adding a lot of resistance putting that mute in there. That's why Lawrence Brown, although he sounded great with the plunger, didn't like playing it. And the bell of the horn rests in the palm of your left hand, which also puts an undesirable pressure on your mouth. But that's part of the deal.

After you get the equipment, play with a record. Put a Tricky Sam solo on, like Ko Ko or Main Stem with Duke Ellington, and try to imitate what he's doing. He also does something that really no one else has ever done since--his "yah" sound. It's a phenomenon that on occasion I'm able to achieve, but not on command!

What I've learned about Tricky was that he had a high velocity of air going through the horn. Even if he played a simple thing like East Side, West Side or a slow ballad, there was a real intensity to it, the air was going through very fast. So there's an urgency about his playing throughout. It's joyful and happy and fun--but intense.

Practice screaming, laughing, hollering with you voice, and then do it on your horn. When I teach, I have people sing everything, not just plunger work, but everything we play. Sing a phrase and really get it down. Play it on the trombone without the plunger, and then try it with the plunger, trying to get the feel you want. Try each gradation of it. First just put the plunger in a little bit, just holding it there. That's called "half-plunger," where you just hold it there and use it as a mute without articulating. Then slowly start articulating things and getting used to moving the plunger in and out.

Write a little blues line and see if you can incorporate the plunger, like, "Well, my baby went away--Ow-ow-ow-oo-ow-ah-ow-oooo." If you listen to the great plunger trombone masters, it's full of discussion, it's full of conversation. It's a talking instrument.

When I was coming up, I would just put any record on and play along with it using the plunger. Or play along with the radio. If you hear a singer, imitate the singer on the plunger. Put a Frank Sinatra record on and play plunger. Anybody--Carmen McRae, Ruth Brown. Listen to great singers. And listen to blues and gospel music. Compositionally, it's about space, about learning where to shout. If you listen to Tricky, he uses a lot of space in his solos, which is very effective. I've done a whole of work with blues singers, where they'll sing a phrase and you back them up, call-and-response style.

Anyway, like I said, that plunger will kick your butt, but it's also a lot of fun to do. It's a whole emotional thing. If you're into really communicating when you play, there's a lot there for you.

Art Baron joined the Duke Ellington band in August 1973 at the age of 23, the last trombonist Ellington ever hired. Previously he had spent time on the road working with Buddy Rich, Stevie Wonder, and James Taylor. Since then Baron has built a career as one of New York's most distinguished jazz, studio, and pit trombonists. His plunger work can be heard on such recordings as Bobby Watson's The Year of the Rabbit (Evidence), Frank Wess' Entre Nous (Concord Jazz), and Weird Nightmare: Meditations on Mingus. His also is the leader of "The Duke's Men," a band made up of Ellington alumni, and a popular and respected clinician.