When they called Eugene Edward Young up to the podium to receive his 2009 NEA Jazz Master's award, he was called by his professional name, Snooky. "I don't know how I got it," he said. "It started when I was a real little kid. I don't know where it came from. It used to be Snookum and it finally wound up being Snooky."
The first chair trumpet player with Jimmie Lunceford
, Count Basie
, Lionel Hampton
, Gerald Wilson
, Thad Jones
, the Tonight Show Orchestra and currently the Clayton/Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, began playing at age five, having been born into a musical family. By seven he was winning amateur contests playing and singing Louis Armstrong hits of the day including "When You're Smiling" and "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You". He even had a chance meeting with his idol. "My mother and I were walking down 5th Street in Dayton, Ohio and Louis Armstrong was in town," he recalled. "I think he may have been staying at the Y, because we're right in front of the YMCA. My mom saw him and stopped him and said, 'Louis Armstrong, this is my son, Snooky. He wants to play trumpet like you and he admires you very much.' I can still remember, Louis hugged me and said many really nice things to me. Later, when I was with the Jimmie Lunceford band, I met Louis and I told him about meeting him in Dayton, but he didn't really remember."
Eventually, he evolved his own style. "I wanted to be a Louis, but I got older and realized you can't be another musician, you have to find your own way. And that's what I did, but at first I wanted to play like Louis and Roy Eldridge
. Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis was my inspiration. Dizzy Gillespie and I were real good friends. In fact, I knew Dizzy Gillespie
before he got to be Dizzy Gillespie in a sense. He didn't get popular until after he left Cab Calloway's band. He had a falling out with Cab and started recording with Charlie Parker.
"I was trying to find a style of my own. All the other trumpet players had things going their own way. I wanted to find a style of my own. I started to use the cup mute and the plunger. There were other people who did that, but that's where I wanted to go and that's the way I went. I used the plunger, but then I started using the cup mute just like a plunger with the same effect, but it had a little different sound."
Even having played with so many giants, he has his favorites. "Thad Jones and Mel Lewis was as great a band as Jimmie Lunceford or Count Basie. Thad Jones and Mel Lewis was equally as good if not better and I'm serious about that. I wouldn't say that if it wasn't true. I couldn't talk against Count Basie, Gerald Wilson, Jimmie Lunceford, Lionel Hampton or any of those bands because I played first trumpet for those people. But I also played first trumpet for Thad Jones and Mel Lewis and they were all New York musicians. There were a lot of soloists in that band."
Fate smiled and he landed one of the cherriest gigs of his time, first chair trumpet in the then-new Tonight Show Orchestra. "Clark Terry
was the one that got me on the Tonight Show. Clark and I were very good friends. I first met Clark before Clark got to be Clark. He was in St. Louis. It was up at a jam session. I said, whew, my goodness, he was something else.
"Once I got on the TV, I loved it. A lot of people think it's a drag to play on a show like that, but it wasn't because you played for everybody in the business. See, that makes a difference when you played for everybody and everybody of any recognition came on the Tonight Show. It was just great to play for all these stars I'm talking about and people going to be stars. When the Tonight Show left New York and went to California, I went with them. Some people said, you going to leave New York? I said count the days that I'm gone and I never did go back. It was a great band in New York, but I think when it came to California it got even better."
But, like any active artist, Young looks ahead. "It's been a very great honor to be selected as one of the NEA Jazz Masters. ...I'm going to be 90 next year and I'm still blowing. I know I can't play like I did when I was 55 or 35 or 25, who can? That goes for anything. I'm glad I was a good young man when I was in there. And I'm still in there, I still play."
Jimmie Lunceford & His Orchestra, 1939-1940
Count Basie, Atomic Basie
Thad Jones/Mel Lewis, Consummation
(Blue Note, 1970)
Snooky Young, Horn of Plenty
Count Basie Kansas City SeptetMostly Blues... And Some Others
Gerald Wilson Orchestra, State Street Sweet
(MAMA Foundation, 1995) Photo CreditJos L. Knaepen