Chris Griffin earned jazz immortality as a member of the classic Benny Goodman Orchestra of the late 1930s. The years he was with Goodman, 1936-39, are considered the peak of the King of Swing’s career, when he had the number one band in the country and one of the most remarkable collections of talent ever assembled. Griffin worked alongside Charlie Christian, Lionel Hampton, Fletcher Henderson, Harry James, Gene Krupa, Teddy Wilson and many others. For two years, from January 1937 to January 1939, Griffin was part of the most celebrated trumpet section in jazz history. Dubbed “The Biting Brass” by the music press, Griffin, Ziggy Elman and Harry James outshone the competition with their precision, powerful attack and bright, ferocious sound.
“Probably the greatest first trumpet player the New York Philharmonic ever had was a guy named Harry Glantz,” said Griffin with a smile. “He was a friend of Benny’s. He came in to hear the Benny Goodman band in the Paramount Theater. He got Benny’s ear afterwards and he said, ‘What the hell do you feed those trumpet players? Raw meat?'”
Admirers included Duke Ellington, who called them “the greatest trumpet section that ever was,” and Glenn Miller, who referred to the section as “the marvel of the age.”
All three members could solo and play lead. They memorized their parts, played matching Selmer trumpets, and tuned slightly sharp for a more brilliant sound. Nearly seventy years later it is still thrilling to hear their roar on classic recordings like “Roll ‘Em,” “Life Goes to a Party,” and the Stravinsky-inspired frenzy, “Sing, Sing, Sing.” In vintage footage they toss out their valve hands with a flourish, point their bells high and rip through their parts with the proud nonchalance of young men who know they are the best at what they do.
Harry James and Ziggy Elman were larger-than-life characters and very extroverted players. James had been raised in a Texas circus band and had learned to play jazz in territory groups, proving himself in one roadhouse after another. Elman had cut his teeth in the nightclubs and ballrooms along the boardwalk of Atlantic City when it was fast and frantic.
“And then there was me, a poor farm boy, sitting between these two guys,” said Griffin with typical self-deprecating humor. “I never sought after, nor did I get, very much publicity,” says Griffin about his role as “the quiet one” in the section. And yet he had far more experience in the big time than either James or Elman. Before joining Goodman he was a member of both the Charlie Barnet and Joe Haymes orchestras. He toured with Rudy Vallee and Willard Robison, and soloed on recordings of Barnet, Mildred Bailey and early Teddy Wilson/Billie Holiday sides. He replaced the mythic Jack Purvis in the Haymes band and filled Bunny Berigan’s seat in the CBS studio orchestra. This by the time he was twenty.
However, Griffin was never a showman like Elman and James who both soloed in flashy, Armstrong-influenced styles. Griffin was always more interested in melody, his solo style closer to the lyricism and restraint of Bix Beiderbecke. In the “killer-diller” Goodman band it made sense that Griffin handled the bulk of the lead parts, directing the entire orchestra with his high, clear tone and solid rhythmic sense while most of the solos went to the others, especially James.
“When he first joined the band we were at the Pennsylvania Hotel,” says Griffin. “He came in and the first solo he played…it was just remarkable. It was as if he had stored that solo as an opening to an act. But the rest of the night he played equally, if not better. He just had this remarkable new style that no one had ever attained before. He was a great, great player.”
And then there was Elman: “A super ego. And he backed up everything that he bragged about by doing it and doing it well. He wasn’t as talented … as Harry, but he almost attained Harry’s showmanship, simply by the bravado of his playing.”
Griffin was a part of it all—the kids dancing in the aisles at the Paramount Theater, the spread in Life magazine, the Savoy Ballroom battle of the bands with Chick Webb, the Camel Caravan radio broadcasts. He appeared in two feature films, The Big Broadcast of 1937 and Hollywood Hotel , and played on hundreds of recordings. Most significantly, he was there for the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, one of the milestones of jazz and the event credited with legitimizing jazz as a true art form. The recording of the concert became one of the best-selling records in jazz history when it was released in 1950, and remains an essential part of any jazz collection.
Though he now acknowledges that it was one of the highpoints of his career, Griffin said that at the time it was harder to realize. “You’ve got to remember, we were young kids. I was 23 years old, Harry was a couple months younger and Ziggy was a couple months older. We just took this as a matter of course, as I suppose the Beatles [did]… But then when we got to the final performance, walking onto stage—it was a little tense.”
It was to Griffin that Harry James made his famous remark just before taking the stage: “I feel like a whore in church.” Griffin smiled. “It’s a good line, isn’t it?”
Despite the many triumphs, eventually life with the mercurial Goodman lost its appeal. “I used to quit regularly,” said Griffin. “I quit about eight times and every time I quit I got a ten-dollar raise…at the end of about a year I was making almost as much as Harry James.” In addition to the grind of life on the road and the ridiculously long hours, in the end the music itself grew tiresome.
“We were doing “Sing, Sing, Sing” … and “One O’clock Jump”—all those killer-dillers. They’re exciting from the outside of it, and when you do it for the first ten times. But when you do it a hundred times it loses its novelty.” In September of 1939, with his wife expecting their third child, Griffin gave his notice and returned to the stability of studio work and his old job on the CBS staff orchestra.
By that time, James had already left to lead his own band. Elman, still riding the wave of his big hit with Goodman, “And The Angels Sing,” stuck it out for another year before joining Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra as a featured soloist. Goodman offered to back Griffin if he wanted to take a band out, and Griffin actually signed a contract with Goodman’s agent, but he never pursued it.
For the next forty years Griffin was one of the top studio musicians in New York. He played lead trumpet in radio and television orchestras for Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan. He appeared on recordings by Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Artie Shaw, Frank Sinatra, and Sarah Vaughn. There were also reunions with Goodman over the years.
“He had come to respect me as … a peer, rather than an employee,” recalled Griffin. “He was once asked who his favorite first trumpet player was. I read it somewhere, he said ‘I guess Chris Griffin…'”
It’s now been twenty-five years since Griffin retired from playing, but he remains busy. In addition to teaching master classes and lecturing about his career, he has been working with Warren Vache, Sr. on a book about his life called, Sittin’ in with Chris Griffin: A Reminiscence of Radio and Recording’s Golden Years , which will be put out by Scarecrow Press this year.