Fanfare for an Unknown Trumpeter

By DAN LEROY
Published: December 19, 2004

1985 PRIF Gordon Chris Griffin owns less than his rightful place in the music history books, he accepts some of the blame. Mr. Griffin is, by his own admission, the trumpeter who refused to blow his own horn.

It’s not that he has any particular cause for modesty.

The 89-year-old musician enjoyed a career long enough for him to back both Benny Goodman and the Beatles. In Goodman’s band, he was part of a trumpet section the great Duke Ellington esteemed the finest ever, and the list of stars who relied on his high, powerful sound, like Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald, is as full of legends as it is long.

However, throughout his six decades in music, Mr. Griffin, who goes by the name Chris, usually chose the anonymity of a studio musician over the higher-profile life of a bandleader, seldom leading his own groups and never, to the best of his knowledge, releasing any solo recordings, despite numerous offers.

Mr. Griffin said he chose that path partly to be closer to his wife and their six children, and partly because he simply wasn’t brassy enough

”Frankly, I never stood up for myself,” said the gentle and thoughtful trumpeter, musing on the past from the easy chair in his Southbury condominium. ”Innately, I’m a modest fellow. And that can kind of be a detriment in this business.”

But recently, Mr. Griffin has decided to break his silence. A biography, written with his assistance, is scheduled for publication next year as part of Rutgers University’s ”Studies In Jazz” series. And while he no longer plays the trumpet because his dentures make it impossible, Mr. Griffin recently gave a workshop for young players at a jazz camp in Litchfield, and hopes to do more mentoring.

”It never occurred to me that I had an interesting story to tell,” he said. ”When you’re playing, you’re always thinking about the next show or the next studio date, and things are hard to put in perspective. I didn’t think anyone cared.”

Martha Tilton

Martha Tilton

Indeed, the list of Mr. Griffin’s true contemporaries is small. Of all the members of the Benny Goodman band that played the historic Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, the first time the venerable hall had ever played host to a jazz act, only Mr. Griffin and the vocalist Martha Tilton survive.

But some current musicians still remember Mr. Griffin from his heyday. One of them, Doc Severinsen, a trumpeter as flamboyant as Mr. Griffin is retiring, calls him ”as good or better than anybody around then.”

”When I came to do a session and I saw Chris Griffin there,” said Mr. Severinsen, Johnny Carson’s former musical sidekick on the ”Tonight” show. ”I knew I wasn’t going to be playing first trumpet.

”He was a real first trumpet, too. He was direct, exact, and he led the whole band. ”He was kind of the point that the band revolved around.”

That, Mr. Severinsen said, was one reason Mr. Griffin never achieved the fame of Harry James, the trumpeter who played next to him in the Goodman band. Mr. Griffin’s leadership role required him to sacrifice some individuality, Mr. Severinsen said.

”It’s a nasty job,” he said with a chuckle, ”but somebody’s gotta do it.”

Dan Morgenstern, a jazz historian and the director of the Institute for Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, pointed out that in Mr. Griffin’s day, a top-flight musician could earn big money doing radio and studio work.

”He was far too busy working as one of the cream-of-the-crop studio musicians to lead a band,” Mr. Morgenstern said. ”Many people heard Chris play without knowing it was him, though.”

A native of Binghamton, N.Y., Mr. Griffin began playing the trumpet in junior high school, after his family had moved to White Plains. But the novelty soon wore off, and the instrument took up residence in his closet.

That might have been the end of Mr. Griffin’s musical career, except for his father’s practicality. ”My dad one day said: ‘Gordon, I paid $29.50 for that trumpet. You must play it. I don’t care what you play, as long as you play it.”’

In fact, Mr. Griffin’s father encouraged him to get up at 5 each morning and practice before school, a habit he jokes ”made me very good friends with the neighbors.” Yet it was one of those neighbors, a local grocer and amateur pianist, that got Mr. Griffin his real start in show business.

Catching Mr. Griffin listening at his window one day as he practiced, the man invited him in. Soon the two had formed a group, and Mr. Griffin was quickly spotted by other bandleaders and recruited to play New York City dates while still a teenager.

He was part of the saxophonist Charlie Barnet’s band, which in 1935 became the first white act to play the Apollo Theater in Harlem. And he became a studio mainstay at CBS, his employer on the night he bumped into John Hammond, the legendary discoverer of jazz talent, who asked him, ”Do you think you’re ready to join the Benny Goodman band?” often described as the Beatles of their day.

Playing between the trumpeters Harry James and Ziggy Elman, Mr. Griffin helped write jazz history in Goodman’s band. ”It was a wonderful section,” said Mr. Morgenstern, the historian. ”They were interchangeable they could all play lead. And when Chris got a chance to solo, he always held his own.”

With ultimate confidence, the trio used no music and tuned themselves sharp, to soar above the band. Yet even the bravado of the brash Mr. James faltered on occasion. Mr. Griffin recalls that, just before taking the stage at Carnegie Hall in 1938, Mr. James confessed, ”I’m as nervous as a whore in church.”

Perhaps that was how a skinny singer from Hoboken felt when he was introduced to Mr. Griffin around that time. ”We were eating one night, and this kid comes up and Harry says, ‘This is Frank Sinatra.’ And he says, ‘Oh, gee, Mr. Griffin, it’s such an honor to meet you!”’ he recalled with a chuckle.

Mr. Griffin’s son Paul, who would become a professional trumpeter like his father, remembers the star-studded parties his parents would host. ”The first time I ever played the trumpet I was 5 years old, and sitting on Harry James’s knee,” said Paul Griffin, now 60.

Perhaps the most well remembered notes Mr. Griffin ever played came during the 1950’s, in the theme to the Jackie Gleason Show. That soaring obbligato earned him the nickname ”Steel Lips” from the show’s creator and star, Jackie Gleason.

But when Mr. Griffin decided, during one episode, to pass off his closing solo to the trumpeter Jimmy Nottingham, he received a terse message the following week: ”The fat man wants to see you backstage.” He went at once, to find ”Gleason sitting there, just like a toad on a stool.”

”He said, ‘Steel Lips, who played the solo last week?’ When I told him, he didn’t say a word. He just pointed his fingers like this,” Mr. Griffin said, holding his hand in the shape of a gun, ”and pointed them straight at me.”

In the early 1960’s, as part of the orchestra for the Ed Sullivan Show, Mr. Griffin encountered, and played with, the Beatles. Even though he had two daughters who were fans of the Fab Four, Mr. Griffin admitted having to first ask a colleague, ”Who are these guys?”

”I couldn’t understand the import of it, but I later learned,” he said with a smile.

But Mr. Griffin said he grew tired of backing other pop stars he believed ”were less than a flash in the pan.” And the Sullivan show’s fondness for performing dog acts was the last straw, he said. ”I played with every dog act in the world,” said Mr. Griffin, shaking his head.

He quit and began playing hotel gigs, but said his enthusiasm waned as big bands fell further out of fashion. By the 1980’s, he had stopped playing altogether, resigned to his place as jazz’s forgotten man. Yet life without music, he admits, was an empty one.

”It was a vacuum,” said Mr. Griffin. ”I was just existing.” His wife, Helen, died in 2000.

”At the end of his ninth decade,” Paul Griffin added, ”it’s nice that he can look back on his life and say, ‘Well, people finally discovered who I was.”’

Gordon Chris Griffin says: ”Innately, I’m a modest fellow. And that can kind of be a detriment in this business.”

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