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FRANK GRIFFITH

Saxophonist, clarinettist, composer and arranger Frank Griffith was born in Eugene, Oregon in 1959, that year when so many things happened in jazz. Years before, his great grandfather had been a farmer in Wales, and like many others, had emigrated to farm in the New World, heading for the hills of Montana. In time, he moved to Oregon where the Griffith family established themselves, his son leaving farming to become a Psychology Professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon in days when Psychology was a new profession. His son, Frank’s father, married Frank Griffithan American girl who was a music major, a gifted pianist and vocalist and it was she who really brought music to the family.

Frank and his sisters inevitably learned piano. ‘I was about five when I started,’ Frank remembers, ‘but I wanted to be different to my sisters, and when I found an old clarinet at home, I started to play that. I couldn’t get much out of it at the beginning, but we had music teachers and I steadily improved. We didn’t do ‘Grades’ in America at that time, and I was mainly having tuition in classical music, but by the time I left school, a few things had happened. I had listened to jazz in my parents’ record collection, Ellington, Armstrong, and I had friends at High School who were into jazz, as well as having very good music teachers in Eugene.’

In 1980, at twenty one, Frank left home and headed for New York City and started at the Manhattan School of Music. By the time he graduated in 1984, he had been exposed to some significant experiences in jazz playing with Ron Carter, Jon Hendricks and Jack McDuff. With a BFA (Bachelor of Fine Arts) to his name from City College he was asked to join The Glenn Miller Orchestra on alto sax for a nationwide tour in 1984. ‘It was an amazing experience and I met some great people,’ says Frank, ‘But a long time travelling is not so good.’

Back in New York, Frank spent the next ten years teaching on a peripatetic basis and getting his compositions and arrangements played by bands such as the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, the Jon Hendricks Explosion and the Brooklyn Philarmonic Orchestra. He played with the orchestras of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis and Mel Tormé. ‘One of Mel’s saxophonists, Andy Mel Torme Benny Goodman and Teddy WilsonFusco, fell ill,’ Frank recalls, ‘and I received this call asking if I would dep. The thing about Mel Tormé was that he was not just a vocalist but a talented arranger and composer and a good drummer and vibes player. This made him aware of the whole thing and enabled him to sing with, be part of, the band, rather than just a singer.... that on top of his great voice.’ We did a gig at Harrow Arts Centre not long ago recalling the partnership of Mel Tormé and Marty Paich.

Mel Tormé on drums with Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson

 

During the 1990s, Frank had the good fortune of working with Dick Haymes Jr and David Allyn in New York. City and New Jersey. Looking back, Frank says: ‘There was also a recording featuring a crack band of NYC stalwarts comprising John DiMartino, piano, Bill Moring, bass, Andy Watson, drums and myself, well,..three out of four aint bad. The songs included were Stella By Starlight, You Stepped out of a Dream, Young and Foolish and, of course, The More I See You. I also penned a big band arrangement of The More I See You for Dick to sing as part of the a ‘Tribute to Glenn Miller’ nationwide tour that he did in 1994 or so that also featured Paula Kelly Jr. and Beryl Davis.

‘I also had the great opportunity to arrange for and play with the legendary 1940s crooner, David Allyn.' (Click here to listen to David Allyn singing Sonny with tribute photographs).

'David stayed friends with Johnny Mandel throughout the years as Johnny would come by our regular big band gigs at NYC’s Red Blazer on West 46 Street when he was in town, which was often. During the few times that I met him, Johnny was a most congenial and approachable chap especially when I would grill him with questions about arranging and composition. I once had the cheek of asking David if the band could play my arrangement of Johnny MandelJohnny’s classic A Time For Love in the presence of the composer which he generously agreed to. Johnny came up to me afterwards and was very complimentary about the chart - a moment I will treasure forever. I strongly feel that my time with Dick Jr, David and Johnny has played a significant part in developing my confidence to flourish in the music business. Long may that triumvirate of artists thrive.’

Johnny Mandel

By 1996, Frank had married an English girl and they had a son. Frank was looking for a new challenge and he and his wife thought that their son would be better growing up in England where they would also have the support of his wife’s family, so they moved to London.

It was not long before Frank began to find his place in the UK music scene. In 1997, he started lecturing at Brunel University in Uxbridge where he is now Director of Performance specialising in composition, improvisation and film music. He met up with Peter Cater whose Big Band included Frank in their recordings Playing with Fire (1997) and Upswing (2000) – ‘Peter was really helpful in getting me started here,’ says Frank, - and Frank’s jazz arrangements were being used by people like Mark Nightingale, Tony Coe, Norma Winstone and Joe Temperley.

Frank’s liaison with baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley resulted in Frank’s clarinet and string arrangements being featured on Joe’s 2001 album Easy To Remember (Hepjazz). Click here to sample.

Frank Griffith The Suspect albumFrank recorded his debut album The Suspect on the Hepjazz label in 1999. The album featured Tom Harrell. It was also the beginning of a longstanding relationship between Frank and retired art teacher Alastair Robertson of Hepjazz recordings. Click here to sample.

Frank first put together his Nonet in 1999. Their appearance at the Ealing Jazz Festival in 2000 was recorded and released by Hepjazz, under the predictable title The Frank Griffith Nonet ‘Live’ at Ealing Jazz Festival 2000 (click here to sample) and the band has played at the Festival every year since then.

There have been some changes in the Nonet personnel over the years, but many of the musicians remain in place: Henry Lowther, Robbie Robson (trumpet), Adrian Fry (trombone), Frank and Mick Foster (reeds), Tim Lapthorn (piano), Mark Hodgson (bass), Paul Clarvis (drums), saxophonistFrank Griffith Nonet Ealing album Bob Sydor (a veteran Brit jazzer who played with Maynard Ferguson, among others) and drummer Matt Home.

The Nonet’s Live Ealing album was followed up in 2004 by The Coventry Suite album, released this time on the 33 Records label. Click here to sample (ignore the misspelling as ‘Country Suite’ on the Amazon site).

2009 saw the Nonet playing at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London’s Dean Street, this time featuring singer Georgia Mancio. Trudy Kerr had sung with the band, but Georgia took over the vocalist role when Trudy moved on. Click here for a video of them playing at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London in 2009 with Georgia.

Since then, both Georgia and Tina May have sung regularly with the band, Tina being featured on Frank’s 2011 Big Band album ‘Holland Park Non-Stop’ which also featured top-flight musicians Frank Griffith Holland Park Non Stop albumincluding trumpeters Steve Fishwick and Freddie Gavita, trombonist Adrian Fry, saxophonist Karen Sharp and pianist John Turville.

In July 2009, the Nonet also played at the Stables, the Dankworth’s venue in Wavendon, Buckinghamshire with John Dankworth as guest artist, and Frank the American was presented with an award by John and Cleo Laine – a BAJA – ‘British Adoptee Jazz Alumni’! ‘I was first introduced to John Dankworth by pianist Eddie Harvey who sadly died last year,’ Frank recalls. ‘I would go along to gigs by his band and we would chat and then I started to play with the band. John was a gentleman. A quiet man, focussed and controlled. His partnership with Cleo was great – he wrote many if not most of her arrangements for her. In fact, when he died he probably passed away with a manuscript in his hand. Although in the end he found difficulty playing, he was determined to go on writing.’

‘I interviewed John in 2005 about his 1960s film scores that included Saturday Night, Sunday Morning; The Servant, The Criminal and Darling. The interview was published in the Journal of John Dankworth Jazz Matters albumBritish Film and Television in December 2006.’ (You can read the interview by clicking here).

Frank plays on the 2009 John Dankworth Big Band album Jazz Matters (QNote) featuring Cleo Laine, and he played with John, Cleo and the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican and Royal Festival Hall. ‘I was also involved in the last recording John made before he died’, says Frank. ‘The recording has never been released, and it would be good if someone could put it out.’

In 2010, Frank and pianist / composer Alex Webb co-curated a project for the London Jazz Festival, Songs Of Strayhorn, which was staged at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and featured singers Alexander Stewart and China Moses with the Nonet. This was followed in November 2012 by Alex Webb’s Jazz At Café Society which played at the Purcell Room as part of the London Jazz Festival. The show which celebrated a historic New York City jazz club featured singers China Moses, Gwyneth Herbert and Alexander Stewart and musicians including Frank, Nathaniel Facey, Sue Richardson and Gary Crosby. Frank wrote several of the arrangements including the arrangement of Where Or When featured in this video with Gwyneth Herbert singing the number (click here).

Frank remains a busy man. In addition to his commitments at Brunel University and teaching at various summer schools, he composes for the Associated Boards Jazz Works ensemble series,Frank Griffith serves on the Music Education Panel at Jazz Services UK, fronts the Nonet and regularly plays with other bands – click here for a video of him with singer Sarah Ellen Hughes band playing Someone in September, 2012 and the Hot Waffle Big Band earlier that year playing What Is Hip?(click here).

In liaison with Alastair Robertson at Hepjazz records, Frank is working on an album that will feature singer Tina May performing some of Alastair’s favourite Standards and Frank’s arrangements. ‘The project is a pleasure,’ says Frank. ‘Alastair has these songs that he loves, songs like Why Don’t You Do Right?, but he is an enlightened man, comfortable with new ideas and open to change.’ The album should be available in October 2013.

Frank is writing music for a string quartet that will back various soloists for a project at the Pizza Express Jazz Club early in 2014, and for a saxophone quartet, that will feature music based on the themes of that famous year in jazz, 1959 – for Frank, the year he first appeared without a saxophone!

You can also check out Frank’s forthcoming gigs on Frank’s website (click here) where you can listen a showcase of his groups and recordings. You can listen to more of his music on his MySpace site (click here). Frank’s albums are available on the Hepjazz label (click here).

Frank's gigs for 2017 so far are:

6 April, 8PM. with Julian Meres and Bobby Haddrell. Here. 28 Lower Kings Road, Berkhamstead, Herts, HP4 2AB. 01442 300870.Free. www.here.co.uk

21 April, 8.30PM. with the Collie/McCuun Collective. POSK Café. 238 King Street, London, W6 ORF, 07415 892436.£8. www.jazzcafeposk.org

24 April, 8PM. with Henry Lowther and Brian Knapp Trio. Ruislip Golf Club. Ickenham Road, Ruislip,HA4 7DQ. 01895 632394. £8.

4 May,8PM. With Adrian Fry and the Hughie Ockendon Trio. Eltham Warren Golf Club. Bexley Road, SE9 2PE.0208 850 4477.£8.

25 May,8PM. Frank Griffith Nonet. Karamel Klub, 4 Coburg Road, London, N22 6UJ. 0208 829 8962. www.karamelrestaurant.com.£8.

18 June,1-3PM. with Kevin Fitzsimmons.Pizza Express.10 Dean Street, W1D 017.www.pizzaexpresslive.com. £15.

19 June,8PM.with Alan Barnes, Graham Harvey, Arnie Somogi and Mark Hale.Bedford Arms, 2 Bromham Rd, MK40 2QA.01234 214656.Free

14 July, 6.30-7.30PM.
with Tina May and Martin Litton. Foyles Book Shop. 107 Charing Cross Road, WC2H.www.foyles.co.uk. £10.

2 August, 8PM.
with Roan Kersey Lawson and Friends. The Roffen,41 New Road, Rochester, Kent, ME1 1DX. 01634 365 453.£10.

15 August, 8PM. with Kevin Fitzsimmons. Annies Jazz Club.Thorpe Hall Golf Club. Thorpe Hall Avenue. Essex, SS1 3AT.£10. www.thorpehall.co.uk

18 August,7PM.
with Henry Lowther. Drayton Court Jazz Festival. 2, The Avenue, Ealing, W13.997 10109.£5.

30 August,12.30PM. withAlex Garnett and Jack Honeybourne Trio. The Spice of Life.6 Moor St, London, W1D 5NA.£6.

6 September, 8PM. with Tina May and the Swing Unlimited Big Band. Parley Sports and Social Club. 275 Christchurch Road, West Parley, Ferndown, BH22 8SQ. 07771 267445.£10.

7 September, 8PM with Tina May, Jez Brown, Rod Youngs and Gareth Williams. Celebrating Ella's Centenary- 100 years of Song. Dorchester Corn Exchange, High E Street, Dorchester, DT1 1HF. 01305 819039. £14 www.dorchesterarts.org.uk

10 October,8.45PM. The Polo Sticks with Alan Barnes, Martin Nickless, Charlie Wood, Dave Jenkins, Les Cirkel. The Stables.Wavendon, MK17 8LU.01908 280800. www.stables.org. £10.

25 November, 7.30PM.
with Tina May, Nick Weldon, Dave Olney, Richard Pite. Celebrating Ella and Fats. Pavenham Village Hall. Pavenham, Beds, MK43 7PE.£12.

 

 

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© Frank Griffith and Sandy Brown Jazz

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