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Malcolm Griffiths: A Man For All Seasons

Malcolm Griffiths: A Man For All Seasons
Duncan Heining By

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We talk often of the stars, like 'Trane and Miles. We remember the bandleaders, such as Basie and Duke. We even recall the composers and arrangers, Ellington again, Gil Evans and Monk. And we never forget those star soloists like Johnny Hodges or Lester Young. But the guys in the machine room, the guys who make their leaders' visions real time and again are all too often just an afterthought.

Yet stop and think about what made those records special and made you go back time and again to hear some of their most perfect moments. How many of those came from a Lawrence Brown or a Bubber Miley or a Harry "Sweets" Edison. And no matter the country or the era, the boys in the back room have been there making it happen.

This is a story about one of those guys—the British trombonist Malcolm Griffiths. Not a household name in jazz terms, perhaps, but a fine servant of the music. He added to an approach derived from J.J. Johnson, the more bizarre sounds of the avant-garde and some of that New Orleans—Chicago tailgate trombone. Griff came of age in the sixties, playing in all the major bands of that era and beyond. He's there on most of Mike Westbrook's albums up to and including The Cortège (1982) and on more John Surman records than you can shake a stick at, if that's your idea of fun. You can hear him on Graham Collier's ground-breaking New Conditions and Symphony of Scorpions (1977) and was a regular feature with Stan Tracey's Octet. He even worked and toured with the Buddy Rich Orchestra in the late sixties and early seventies.

Sadly, Griff's mighty voice is silent now. Health problems with diabetes forced him to give up music some years ago but that cannot detract from the fondness in which he is held by British jazz musicians and fans. I interviewed Griff recently for a biography of Graham Collier and it was an opportunity to talk about and celebrate his career in jazz. As with so many musicians who came up in those years, Griffiths' introduction to jazz began in his teens at school.

"This is going to sound odd but I used to belong to a jazz club at East Barnet Grammar School," he tells me. "I had started doing a bit of playing around the area and got a call one day from someone who used to go to the local club. He was teaching art at another local school and he was instrumental in getting me to play with a band that one of his sixth formers ran. They had a gig at the Café des Artistes. I went along and they invited me to join the band."

It was at one of these gigs that Griff met a musician who would have a major impact upon his future direction in life, as he explains,

"One day, the baritone player couldn't make it and they had sent along this young chap who had come up from Plymouth. It was John Surman. John kindly invited me to go down and rehearse with Mike Westbrook and as a result I joined Mike's sextet. I have to say that John has been so important in the careers of so many musicians—certainly was in my case. The work I did with John was absolutely wonderful."

For several years, Griffiths pursued a dual career—jazz musician by night and at weekends and university lecturer by day. It was another chance occurrence that finally made him jump ship and plump for jazz over academia.

"One of the early gigs I did was with Buddy Rich," he tells me. "Buddy had come over with his band and, as was his wont, he had had a row with his lead trombone player. Dankworth's agency was given a call and I got invited to go down and play with him at Ronnie Scott's. The second night in, he said, 'Do you want to come back to the States with me?' At the time, I was lecturing in Economic Development. They wanted me to lecture full-time and do an exam-based PhD. I thought, 'Sod that!' I was determined never to take another exam in my life. If you had the choice between lecturing on Economic Development or touring with Buddy Rich, what would you do? I went with Buddy."

Buddy Rich stories are the stuff of jazz legend. However, Griff enjoyed his time with the orchestra. "I liked Buddy, I thought he was a very nice man," he says and continues, "He did seem to take quite a lot from me. There was an issue about coming in after a drum solo. We had to have somebody giving us a count, otherwise we didn't know when to come in. We had a meeting in the band to talk about this problem but I didn't realise that Buddy's daughter was in the room listening. That night I got a drum stick up my arse with Buddy saying, 'Is that alright, Malcolm?'"

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