Chris Griffin is a name worth knowing if a listener enjoys the trumpet. No less an expert than Duke Ellington said so. He once picked out the line-up of Harry James, Ziggy Elman and Griffin as "the best trumpet section of all time," a moment of generosity as well as brass appraisal since this trumpet trio was an aspect of Ellington's stiffest competition, the Benny Goodman band. Nicknamed "steel lips," Griffin is one of those trumpeters who got the part with the high notes and can be sampled on a pile of recordings that if secured atop each other might seem to be heading for some of the pitches Griffin hit, at least symbolically.
He began as a pianist when he was only five, dropped music for a few years and then began the trumpet at 12. Still his interest flagged until a neighbor friend who played piano came up with the idea of starting a band. This was just the beginning of a life in which Griffin probably spent more time on bandstands than anywhere else, with recording studios coming in a close second. At 15 he was playing in a New York City dance hall; at 18 he had begun working with performers whose names have retained the gleam of fame over the decades. He played until 1934 with bandleader Charlie Barnet, took off for a spell to back up crooner Rudy Vallee and was doing studio assignments for CBS when Goodman hired him.
Between several stints in the latter band the trumpeter continued studio work and freelanced in bands led by Miff Mole and Teddy Wilson, among others. Jimmy Dorsey was the first name written in his datebook for 1940 but doesn't appear again past the spring months. Goodman seemed to make sure this trumpeter was in the section whenever he assembled an important recording date. Since Griffin logged something like three decades of service to the CBS studios, where Goodman also did much work, this wasn't too difficult to arrange.
During the '60s Griffin branched out to open a school of trumpet with fellow high note man Pee Wee Irwin. Bandleader Warren Covington took the trumpeter out on the road in the '70s, including a European tour. After the '80s Grifin seems to have stepped back from active service to the jazz community. On the subject of touring, those fans of bed and breakfast spots who stop by the Griffin House Bed and Breakfast in Jeffersonville, New York, would have the opportunity to visit something of a shrine to good old "steel lips." The establishment is run by the trumpeter's son, Paul Griffin, who set up a "Griffin Room" on the second floor in honor of his father's career. The trumpeter should not be confused with the Chris Griffin who runs an Atlanta mastering facility and is also active as a player.
- By Eugene Chadbourne
All Music Group