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Chris Griffin, 89; Trumpeter Played in Goodman Orchestra

June 27, 2005|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Chris Griffin, one of the finest trumpeters of the big band-era best known for his work in Benny Goodman's orchestra, has died. He was 89.

Griffin died June 18 in Danbury, Conn., of melanoma, according to his fiancee, Louise Baranger.

Through the latter half of the 1930s, Goodman's orchestra was considered the top group in the country and had a huge following. It included a remarkable number of players that went on to become household names, including guitarist Charlie Christian, drummer Gene Krupa and vibraphonist Lionel Hampton.

The trumpet section, composed of Griffin, Harry James and Ziggy Elman, was the talk of the jazz world. Duke Ellington was quoted as saying that it was "the greatest trumpet section that ever was." Glenn Miller called it "the marvel of the age."

Less flamboyant in personality and more restrained in playing style than either James or Elman, Griffin was nevertheless influential in playing lead and occasionally playing solo.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 09, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Griffin obituary -- The obituary of trumpeter Chris Griffin in the June 27 California section said Jackie Gleason's theme song was "Shangri-La." It was "Melancholy Serenade."

"He had a swinging sound with just a touch of sweetness," William Sam Meier, an expert on classic jazz, told the Los Angeles Times on Friday.

Gordon Claude "Chris" Griffin was born in Binghamton, N.Y., on Oct. 31, 1915. He was just 12 when he picked up the horn. Six years later, he was living in New York City and playing professionally in the saxophonist Charlie Barnet's band.

After two years with Barnet, he played with singers Rudy Vallee, Joe Haymes and Mildred Bailey. He found studio work with CBS and joined the Goodman band in May 1936.

Griffin stayed with Goodman for nearly three years and participated in one of the historic moments in jazz: the Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 when Goodman brought his orchestra into the famed venue for the first performance there by a jazz band. The concert brought a new level of recognition to jazz and a new legitimacy to the music.

Griffin also appeared with the Goodman band in the films "The Big Broadcast of 1937" and "Hollywood Hotel."

But by 1939, Griffin had decided that the grind of touring was not for him. Married to former singer Helen O'Brien and with his third child on the way, he left the limelight of big band work for the lucrative but relatively anonymous life of a studio musician.

He played lead trumpet in radio and television orchestras for Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle and Ed Sullivan. He is credited with playing the beautiful trumpet obbligato on Gleason's theme song, "Shangri-La."

As a session musician, Griffin recorded with Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Tony Bennett and Mel Torme. He also worked with Charlie Parker on the "Charlie Parker With Strings" album.

Griffin ran a trumpet school in the late 1960s and toured Europe in the 1970s before joining Tex Beneke's band.

Widowed in 2000, he is survived by Baranger, who is also a jazz trumpeter and arranger; five children; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

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