Gordon "Chris" Griffin (by Dave Leonnig)

Discussion in 'Jazz / Commercial' started by dcstep, Mar 21, 2005.

  1. dcstep

    dcstep Mezzo Piano User

    Nov 27, 2003
    Dave Leonnig gave me permission to share the following:

    There are many famous musical names that I recognize from reading CD (and record) liner notes, and many that I have learned about in my new life as a beginning trumpet instructor and sales representative for Stomvi horns and our rep company, Horn Haven.

    I have been privileged to hang with a lot of musicians that I count among my friends, and whom I proudly acknowledge as my teachers and inspiration as a comeback player. But this week I met one of the real masters of our craft (I’m an insider now because you have treated me as such, not because of the notches in my professional belt).

    This week I met Gordon “Chris†Griffin. It was actually his dinner, and it wouldn’t have been my first choice (bad chicken pot pie and a protein shake in a nursing home).

    For those of you who don’t know Chris, he is the unsung hero of the Benny Goodman trumpet section. Yes, THAT band. The one that Ziggy and Harry played in. Chris played mostly the lead book in that band, while Harry and Ziggy handled the solos. Chris was a more than adequate soloist (as you’ll see as you read on), but it was his job to handle the section (and swing the band).

    With Goodman's band he played at the first jazz concert at Carnegie Hall and knew Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson as band and travel mates. As a big band, radio orchestra (first trumpet at CBS), and session player from 1935 until the 1980s, he also knew all the other band leaders, musical luminaries and just plain old sidemen who made the big bands and recording industry great in New York.

    He is the man who at 19 played his first record date with Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo, and that very same man who started his band career with Charlie Barnet (a pretty good band as well), playing on Barnet's first recording in 1935. He also recorded with Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra (who approached him in a NY restaurant in 1940 saying, "Hello Mr. Griffin, I don't know if you remember me...") and others, and then virtually any singer or performer who appeared on the radio at CBS. The one who played the great trumpet obbligato for the Jackie Gleason TV show.

    Also, he is the one who had a contract in the safe at the Willard Alexander Agency to go on the road with his own band if he wanted to, an offer he refused in order to stay in New York with his family.

    That Chris Griffin.

    Chris is 89 years old, and has been sick for about a month recovering from pneumonia. He is in a nursing home near Southbury, Connecticut, and he needs our prayers and well wishes. But the most important thing I want to tell you is how much Chris wants to be remembered for his contribution. And he deserves to be.

    This year, a book will come out (written by Warren Vaché Sr., who recently passed away at 90) that will tell a part of Chris’ story. It’s a good story, and needs to be told, but I can also pass on to you that from talking to Chris, and God willing, the story isn’t over yet.

    When I met Chris, he was too weak to rise to greet me (or to lift his head from the pillow for that matter), but his eyes are as alive as the eyes of any 20-year-old I ever met. He is as precise as one of his entrances (that’s why he played most of the lead book with Benny, you know), and his mind is razor sharp. His memory is impeccable, and his reverence for the people he played with is inspiring. He really cherishes his friends and their contributions as well.

    I asked Chris some questions about some of my favorites, and he knew them all, and had stories about almost every one.

    Since this is a trumpet group I am writing to, I asked Chris on your behalf who were the best men he played with, and with whom he would want to sit in a section. He answered without hesitation: Bernie Glow, Carl Poole, Andy Ferretti, Billy Butterfield. I selfishly included him.

    Some of the best stories are about drinking, because the big bands had their share of drinkers, and Chris was adept at bending an elbow with them all. In a few of the stories, Chris is less than a hero – like leaving his car in one place, and taking a train to another, or leaving his horn at home and bringing an empty case to work. When he forgot his horn, Charles Colin loaned him one (they were just around the corner from the Ed Sullivan Theater, of course).

    Chris was very good friends with Billy Butterfield, and remembers the time well (at his house) that Billy was preparing a pasta dinner for four musicians and their wives, and was of course drinking scotch throughout the several hours he prepared the meal. At the end of preparation, as he was serving the meal, Butterfield put the pasta down on the table – and passed out face first in the bowl! Butterfield’s wife turned his head to the side so he could breathe and said “Leave him there, he’ll be fine.†And they went on with the meal.

    Those are the types of things Chris remembers. And according to his fiancée Louise Baranger, he remembers them the same every time. Frankly, I’m having a hard time doing that in my 40s.

    Chris is satisfied with his contribution to the trumpet lineage, but wishes to be better remembered for his part in the history of recording and entertainment in our country. Chris certainly recalls all the great playing he did. Like being in Goodman’s band from 1936-1939. Like playing his part in the film version of “The Benny Goodman Story,†where his trumpet is heard on the soundtrack, but his face is absent from the on-screen shots of the band. Chris was a busy working musician in New York, couldn’t get away for that long to wait for the filming, and his chair was taken by Buck Clayton – who never played in the band during it’s heyday, but with Count Basie.

    It’s a shame that Chris isn’t known for all the great music he played on the airwaves for our parents’ (and parents’ parents). If you listened to or watched CBS at all, you heard Chris. He backed everyone, and also played music during the interludes and leading into and out of programs that has luckily been captured on numerous airchecks.

    He was in the orchestra for the Jackie Gleason show, and played the famous trumpet solo for the theme song. Once, he gave it away for the week, and Jackie (the “fat man†as they called him) told him directly to take it back and play it. He did.

    He backed any acts that frequented the Ed Sullivan Show in the theater on Broadway & 53rd street, including the guy who balanced the swirling plates on the long sticks. Even I can remember that.

    These were the days of playing whatever was on the stand, playing on uncountable good and bad record dates and subbing for bands without much recognition (and before the pay was as good). Chris laments that the guys on the West Coast were paid more, and that the pension didn’t start until 1958, when Chris had been in the studios for nearly 20 years.

    He stopped playing professionally about 25 years ago, before many who read this were born (or at least fully aware of what a working musician did). He played in sections with all the great ones. Once, he played the lead book with “Gozzo the Great†sitting next to him. That’s some pressure.

    Chris has five children (a sixth is deceased), and was married for 64 years to Helen O’Brien, who he met when she was singing with Tommy Dorsey. Helen died in July 2000.

    There is more to read about at http://www.griffin-house.com/chrisgriffin.htm. I found some differing dates, so I went with the ones that Chris gave me. There is also a recent article about Chris at http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=15793. You can write to him at [email protected]. A recent New York Times article is no longer available without paying for it, but I have the text if you want to read it. Just e-mail me at [email protected].

    Finally, I have to admit that I had my skepticism about Louise and Chris being together (she is about half his age), and some of that has been reported here on TPIN. After meeting them both and seeing them together, I will tell you that there is much true affection between them. For any of you who have cared for an older person who is sick in any way, it is also a lot of work, and Louise treats Chris like a prince (and unfortunately with more care than the overworked staff at the nursing home). There are details that you can only imagine, and Chris is still with us because of Louise, I guarantee that.

    Those of you who know me know that I enjoy the hang, but I don’t put any of you on pedestals. Chris is someone that I would hang with any time, and who I expect to see again when I attend the New York Brass Conference April 8-9 at Purchase College State University of New York.

    I’ve listened again to his playing, and it was pretty awesome. But his memory is even better, and he also can still cut like a razor with his wit.

    Get well Chris, because the hang’s not over yet.

    Dave Leonnig

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