Albert Thornton Grey, the master of plunger, mute, and hat techniques was born in Aldie Virginia on June 6th, 1925, but moved to Pennsylvania at an extremely young age, and has been associated with that area ever since, particularly the Philadelphia area.
He is best known, however, all over the world for his years with the big name bands and his own excellent small groups.
After his discharge from the Navy (following World War II), where he played with the famed Great Lakes Naval Training Center Band, Grey joined Benny Carter's Orchestra. Then he played with the bands of Jimmie Lunceford, Lionel Hampton, and Dizzy Gillepsie, before joining Count Basie in 1957. From 1961-64 he and Billy Mitchell led an award-winning sextet. Then Grey rejoined Basie, remaining until late in 1976. From that time, he co-led a number of marvelous combos with such front-line tenor saxophonists as Jimmy Forrest and Buddy Tate.
Although Grey gained invaluable experience with Carter and Lunceford, it wasn't until he played with Hampton's band in 1948 that he began to use the plunger. Hamp's singer, Sonny Parker, would leave big gaps after his blues phrases.
One night Al filled the spaces with plungered comments from his trombone and Hamp immediately recognized something special. "That's it, Gates," he cried!
Hampton calls everyone "Gates" but Count Basie had a specific nickname for Grey. It was "Fab," short for Fabulous, due in part to Al's distinctive plunger work.
As outstanding as he was as a big band soloist, Grey, with his arsenal of effects, was able to bring the big band sound and feeling to the smaller ensemble, while taking advantage of the extra solo space afforded by the combo setting. Again, his mastery of plunger, mute, and hat techniques endowed him with a versatility that served him exceedingly well in a situation where two horns must approximate more horns. He made his trombone talk in a variety of dialects that further enhanced the already rich language of jazz.
These techniques, if not lost arts, are certainly not familiar ones to the vast majority of brass players. Grey had his models in "Cootie" Williams and "Tricky Sam" Nanton. He was able to listen to them but he had to learn by doing- his own trial and error.