Any bandleader who had Snooky Young in his band could relax, knowing that he'd filled the most difficult role in the band with the best that there was. Young spent four decades leading the trumpet sections in the bands of Jimmy Lunceford, Count Basie and Lionel Hampton. He was infallible, and earned the respect and affection of all his fellows.
"He was a hell of a trumpet player," said Buck Clayton, who sat beside him in Basie's band. Indeed he was, being unique among lead players in that he was also a splendid jazz soloist. "He's also a gentleman and very pleasant to work with," continued Clayton. "He has a good lip and he's one of the most dependable trumpet players in the business." Lead trumpeters are usually large and muscular men. Young was very small and, on the face of it, delicate. Many's the musician who, sitting next to him for the first time, has almost jumped from his seat at the sudden burst of power from Young's horn.
The laconic Count Basie, who in his autobiography didn't usually describe his sidemen by much more than the dates when they joined and left his band, became comparatively garrulous when Young's name came up. "He's very likeable and wonderful and dependable," said the Count.
Concert audiences don't alwaysrealise how important a good leadtrumpeter is, and consequently names like Conrad Gozzo, the Holy Grail, remained completely unknown to them. But the musicians themselves were aware and, had Young not been such a friendly and unassuming man, his comrades would have regarded him with hushed awe and reverence. As it was, he was just about the perfect jazz musician, whose life was long, happy and entirely distinguished.
Young's first fame came when he stepped out of the section to solo on Lunceford's classic recording of "Uptown Blues" in 1939 when he was 19. "It was different in those days," he said. "They usually had a lead, a growl and a get-off man in the trumpets, but today the lead is thrown about more. I don't think one man could play lead in every number in today's books. So much of what we play is upstairs that it would wear one man down."
The Lunceford band provided he music for the 1941 film melodrama Blues in the Night, which starred Elia Kazan and Jack Carson as musicians. "When Jack Carson jumped up and played a solo it was me playing the music," said Young.
Given the sobriquet "Snooky" by an aunt when he was a small child, Young was known to his musicians by his more obscure nickname, "Sack". Born in Dayton, Ohio, the third of seven children, he began his professional career as a child in the mid-1930ss, playing in his family's band, Young's Snappy Six. His father played saxophone and his mother played banjo and guitar. He and his brother played trumpets and his sister was the pianist. The family toured with a road show called "Brown Skin Models" and it became stranded when the review collapsed in the Deep South. It took the family six months to work its way back to Dayton.
When Louis Armstrong came to Dayton the theatre windows were left open because of the heat, and Young stood in the street and listened to "the most beautiful trumpet I ever heard. There are guys like Charlie Shavers and Clark Terry whose work I'm crazy about, but my main influence was Louis."
Still in school, Young joined the local Wilberforce Collegians, where he met another trumpet player, Gerald Wilson, who was to become a close friend for life. When Wilson joined the Lunceford band he recommended Young to the leader and, over the three years he was with the band, Young took trumpet solos on a dozen or so of the band's records. When the Second World War began the band fell apart as musicians, and went into the services. Young passed his medical to join the US Navy, but was never called up.
"Count Basie came through Dayton at a time when Buck Clayton was sick with his tonsils and he asked if I'd play in the band for a month until Buck was well. I think that was how I made my way with Basie, because he liked my playing. It was like night and day, those two bands," Young said, comparing Basie and Lunceford. "In fact, I had to learn how to play again when I went to the Basie band. Lunceford's was a two-beat band. Basie's was the band that first started to really swing."
Young was to return to work with the pianist for long periods over the next three decades, most prominently from 1957 when he stayed with Basie for five years. Similarly, after firstjoining Lionel Hampton's big band in 1942, he left and rejoined the vibraphone player several times over the ensuing years. In 1943 he dropped off when Hampton reached Los Angeles and joined bands led by Les Hite and Benny Carter.
"It's probably only because he's so valuable in the section," Carter said, "that Snooky hasn't received his due recognition as a soloist."
In 1957 Young became a founder member of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band and also worked for Benny Goodman. Another Basie giant,the tenor saxophonist Frank Foster, who also died recently, pointed the finger in 1958 at last to give Young the prominence he deserved so well. Foster wrote "Who, Me?", a rampaging feature for Young's trumpet. It has all the exultant magnetism of the band at its best, with Young in his solo playing "lead, growl and get-off man" in one magnificent performance. It thrilled crowds in concerts across the US, Europe and Asia. As did his performance of the delicate ballad "Pensive Miss", written as a feature for him with the band by Neal Hefti.
Young came off the road when he left Basie in 1962 and became a studio musician in New York. When The Tonight Show band moved from New York to Los Angeles, he went with it. He stayed with the show from 1972 until 1992. In Los Angeles he enhanced the Basie-inspired Juggernaut, a big band led by Nat Pierce and Frankie Capp, and once again joined his friend Gerald Wilson when Young became the high-note player in Wilson's big band. He was a regular in many of the local jazz groups, notably the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra and the blues package led by Jeannie and Jimmy Cheatham.
"He's one of the most precious human beings I have ever known," said Quincy Jones, topping off the praise for one of the most well-liked jazz musicians of all time.
Eugene Edwards "Snooky" Young, trumpeter: born Dayton, Ohio 3 February 1919; married 1939 (two daughters, one son); died Los Angeles 10 May 2011.