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Last of the Big PlungersCopyright © 2000The Scotsman, 2000
Al Grey was best known as the swing trombonist who developed the plunger mute style pioneered by Joe 'Tricky Sam' Nanton into a sophisticated and highly individual signature. He made his name with big bands led by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie before launching out as a soloist and leader of his own groups in the later decades of his career, latterly with his son, Mike Grey, also a trombonist.
Grey was popular visitor not only for his immaculate playing, but also his infectious sense of humour. The trombonist claimed that he had learned that music could be fun as well as a serious pursuit when playing in the Lionel Hampton band early in his career, and it was a lesson he never neglected, both on and off the stage.
He was born in Virginia into a family where music was highly regarded. His father was a brass player and his mother played piano as well as church organ. The family moved north to Pottstown, Pennsylvania, when Grey was only months old, where his father taught a local band. He taught him how to play on a baritone horn loaned by his school, and then on a trombone which the family saved hard to buy for him.
He progressed through his local school bands (where he had to play tuba at times), then joined the navy, where he met a number of jazz musicians, and eventually acquired valuable playing experience, as well as taking the opportunity to check out and play in the local jazz scene at his various stations, including Boston and Detroit. It was in the latter city that he first met Tricky Sam Nanton, the player who had established the plunger mute (a type of cup mute which earned that name because it was most often fashioned out of the cup of a plumber's plunger) as a legitimate expressive device in the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Grey acknowledged that he observed Nanton closely on that occasion, but his own adoption of the plunger came later in his career. He was discharged from the navy in 1945 on medical grounds, and walked directly into his first professional job as a trombonist in saxophonist Benny Carter's band, where he replaced J J Johnson. Grey said that the experience was a chastening one in the first instance, since he was not yet prepared for the demands of such a setting, but he learned quickly, and made his first recordings with the saxophonist in 1946.
He worked on his skills with Carter, and travelled to the west coast with the bandleader, where he encountered Charlie Parker and the emerging bebop style, but although he later worked with Dizzy Gillespie and was fully aware of their innovations, his own style remained very firmly in the swing mode.
When Carter broke up his band late in 1946, Grey joined bandleader Jimmy Lunceford, where he took the seat once occupied by one of his idols, trombonist Trummy Young. That appointment was unexpectedly terminated when Lunceford died suddenly of a heart attack in July, 1946, in the middle of a tour, leaving the band stranded in Oregon. They continued under Lunceford's name for a short time, then Grey transferred briefly to the band led by Lucky Millinder, then joined vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.
Hampton's style was very different from the more sophisticated approach of Carter and Lunceford, and Grey responded to the showbiz antics and general sense of fun in a band which also provided a platform for serious playing. He spent five years with Hampton, but was fired by the leader's formidable wife, Gladys Hampton, for walking off stage one night when the band had overplayed a little too long (Grey had a date with a young lady).
He spent a couple of years working for arranger Sy Oliver's studio orchestra, backing Ella Fitzgerald among others, but missed the live performance atmosphere, and eventually left to join the band led by singer Bullmoose Jackson as musical director. He spent three and half years touring with Jackson, then worked with Arnett Cobb until the saxophonist was injured in a car crash in 1956. He took over the trombone chair from Frank Rehak in Dizzy Gillespie's big band, and was featured in a memorable recording of 'Cool Breeze' with the trumpeter at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957.
The musical rewards outweighed the financial ones in Gillespie's band, however, and Grey soon found himself free again. Back home in Philadelphia, he had an unexpected chance to play with the Count Basie Orchestra when the band found themselves one trombonist down. Grey had come to the gig to hear the band, and rushed home to get his instrument when he was invited to fill the vacant seat for the night.
It was the beginning of a lengthy association with Basie. The bandleader took him on a tour of Europe immediately afterwards, and later began to feature him as a prominent soloist in the band. He recorded several significant albums with him, including One More Time, Basie Plays Hefti (which included a famous trombone section feature on 'Bag of Bones'), Atomic Basie and Sinatra at the Sands. By his own account, Grey developed a more refined style under Basie's tutelage, and also began to develop his use of the plunger mute in serious fashion.
He formed a sextet with fellow ex-Basie saxophonist Billy Mitchell in 1961, and cut a series of recordings for the Argo label (including one with the tongue-in-cheek title Last of the Big Plungers) before the group disbanded in 1962. He led his own band for time, then rejoined Basie in 1964 as a star soloist. He continued to work periodically with the bandleader for the next decade and half, but also reactivated his interest in a small group when he teamed up with saxophonist Jimmy Forrest to form a band and their own record label in the mid-1970s, which ran until Forrest's death in 1980.
By now very well-established, Grey became a regular attraction on the international festival circuit, as a soloist, with his own bands, and as part of various All-Star ensembles with musicians like Buddy Tate, Harry Edison and Benny Carter. He began to teach and give workshops regularly, and wrote what is regarded as the leading practice manual on plunger mute technique. His playing was featured on countless records, including the award-winning soundtrack for Steven Spielberg's film The Colour Purple.