Sittin' In With Chris Griffin
Warren W. Vache
Sittin' In With Chris Griffin: A Reminiscence Of Radio And Recording's Golden Years
Paperback; 116 pages
Seated next to Harry James and Ziggy Elman, trumpeter Gordon "Chris" Griffin was a less-heralded member of Benny Goodman's brass section from 1936 to 1939 and for short stints thereafter. He soloed rarely and was overshadowed by his colleagues; he received, for instance, only one eight-bar solo during Goodman's iconic 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. On the basis of just one 1935 Mildred Bailey session where he held his own with Chu Berry and Teddy Wilson, Griffin was revealed as a fine hot player, recalling a less adventurous Bunny Berigan. But he later chose the security of anonymous radio and television studio work. He was lead trumpet for the Ed Sullivan Show for 22 years and he was the soaring soloist on Jackie Gleason's theme song.
This small book offers Griffin's affectionate tales of Goodman, Charlie Barnet, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and others. He comes across as a modest, witty raconteur, and any new first-hand testimony about those long-gone days when, for a moment, jazz was American popular music, is worth having. But the book is a disappointment. Jazz musicians, without prodding by a skilled questioner, are not naturally good novelists, and Griffin's plainness gets in the way of what might have been revealing anecdotes. Here's how he describes the famous actresses who appeared on one radio show: Ingrid Bergman was "a very wholesome-looking woman," Merle Oberon looked "like a Dresden doll," and when he gets to Bette Davis, he comments, "I'm sure you already know all about her."
So much of Griffin's career is overlooked here that the book reads like a chapter from a longer work presented on its own. The disconnected, fragmentary anecdotes are pleasant enough, but a reader soon feels as if veteran bassist Vache (father of Warren Jr. amd Allan, biographer of Claude Hopkins, PeeWee Erwin and Johnny Blowers) simply did not get to ask enough questions, or that the manuscript was truncated for some reason. We get brief tales of Kate Smith, Tony Martin, Fritz Kreisler, clarinetist Bill Stegmeyer's wife getting testy with the milkman, and the comic effects of trumpeter Andy Ferretti's lispbut Griffin played and recorded with many musicians whose names appear only in the closing discography. His recollections say nothing of Louis Armstrong, Mildred Bailey, Anita O'Day, Pearl Bailey, Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey, or Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert.
It is telling that this book is called a "reminiscence," with no mention of jazz in its title. Both Griffin and Vache died in 2005, so it is a pity more of these stories did not find their way into print. Both as a musician and as a witness to musical and social history, Griffin deserved more attention than he got, and a fully developed memoir could have provided a much more satisfying portrait of the swing era from the inside.