When Eugene (Snooky) Young became interested in jazz, he wanted to be a great soloist, like his idol, Louis Armstrong. But fate had other ideas, and for most of his 45-year career Young has made his living in the physically demanding role of the lead trumpeter.
"I had no idea this would happen when I started working," the convivial Young said at his Van Nuys home recently. "I just wanted to get out there and blow, just play like Louis. But my path was into lead trumpet playing. And I'm not unhappy about that because I like to play lead." Young, who has employed his capacity to play high, loud and strong with such great bands as Jimmy Lunceford (1939-42), Count Basie (1942-44, 1946 and 1957-62) and Doc Severinsen's "The Tonight Show" orchestra (1972-present) explained that lead playing isn't for everybody, particularly featured soloists.
"Lead playing is not easy," he said. "It will wear you out and then you don't have anything left for your solo. A lot of guys can play both lead and jazz, but most soloists don't want to, because it stiffens your chops, which makes it harder to play jazz."
According to Young, who shares first chair duties with John Audino on "The Tonight Show," the lead trumpeter is one of four key musicians in a big band. "You need a good drummer, good first alto sax, first trombone and first trumpet, and you put the other men around them," the 66-year-old trumpeter said.
These central figures must also get along, fraternally and musically. "You have to like each other," the Dayton, Ohio, native said, "and appreciate the way each other phrases. Because if you don't phrase together, you still don't have anything. A good lead player can come in from another band and not make it, because he doesn't fit in with the style of the new band."
Young experienced exactly that situation when he left a three-year stint with Lunceford's band in 1942 to join Basie. "Those two bands were as different as night and day," Young said. "Even when I would play the music correctly, I would be wrong. They used music, but they wouldn't be playing what was there (on paper): It was only a guide. I was fortunate that (trumpeters Harry) 'Sweets' (Edison), Buck Clayton and Ed Lewis taught me how to phrase Basie's book."
While that early Basie period holds fond memories for Young, it was his five-year return stint with the Count, after 10 years of small group playing in Dayton, that he considers his career high point. "That was a great time because it was a terrific band, with men like Marshall Royal and Thad Jones. And there I was, playing the lead book. I felt really good about that," he said.
While Young has specialized in lead work, he's also a warm, swinging soloist in the Roy Eldridge tradition who's been featured on several recordings, both with big bands like Basie's and on recordings of his own. He occasionally spotlights his soloist side by leading a combo, as he will tonight, when his quintet plays the Alleycat Bistro.
In these small group outings, Young gets a chance to reveal another specialty: his use of various trumpet mutes. "I've always used mutes," Young said. "I kind of like to change the sound of the horn. So I keep experimenting with different mutes, finding sounds I like."
As much as he likes to get out and feature himself, Young said he is quite happy with his lot as the lead man. When his schedule permits, he plays first chair with Bill Berry's L.A. Band, the Capp/Pierce Juggernaut and Gerald Wilson's Orchestra of the '80s (with whom he'll work Friday and Saturday at Marla's Memory Lane). "I've really enjoyed my career," he said. "There have been no disappointments."