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Artist Profiles

Chris Griffin: the Last of Goodman's Biting Brass

By Published: January 5, 2005

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 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.

Trumpets: Left to Right-Harry Gluck, Phil Cappocatto, Chris Griffin; Trombones: Larry Alpeter, Roland Dupont, Phil Giardino; Reeds: Willie Fisher, Floyd Tottle, Artie Matterrazzi, Al Howard, Hub Lytle; Bass: Sam Schoobie; Harp: Pearl Chertok; Strings: Solly Deutsch, Irving Praeger...

"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. He has also been going out and seeing music a lot, due to the fact that he is newly engaged to Louise Baranger, a freelance trumpet player more than forty years his junior.

Baranger is a jazz player in the big band tradition. She worked in Harry James's band the year before he died, and she has since created a multi-media tribute to him for which she leads a big band and recreates many of his famous solos . On Griffin's birthday, Baranger was out front playing the solos with a local group. The show started with Ziggy Elman's "And The Angels Sing." Next were a couple of Harry James charts---the Jimmy Mundy composition "Ultra," and James's arrangement of the Goodman hit, "Don't Be That Way."

After paying homage to the other two members of the Biting Brass, Baranger took the microphone. She talked about the music she had just played and told the story of that famous Benny Goodman trumpet section. Then she introduced Griffin. Necks craned and warm smiles were directed at Griffin from all over the room. A birthday cake was brought out. Griffin seemed to bear the attention only by staring into Baranger's eyes.

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