Perfect Sound Forever

Dick Griffin

Interview by Alexander McLean
(December 2006)

Dick Griffin is one of today's leading trombone players. In a career spanning over 30 years, he has performed with some of the biggest names in jazz, soul and funk, as well as appearing with several symphony orchestras. Mr. Griffin has worked with an impressive range of artist, including Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Tito Puente, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Marvin Gaye, Adullah Ibrahim, Michael Jackson, Isaac Hayes, Dionne Warwick, Lionel Hampton, the Temptations, James Brown, Nancy Wilson and many others.

Griffin has worked hard to develop a highly personalized playing style which he calls "circularphonics." His ability to combine playing chords on the trombone with circular breathing is unrivaled among jazz trombonists. The expanded range of simultaneous sounds Griffin creates through his multiphonic technique sometimes evokes the spirit of such experimental jazz musicians as John Coltrane, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, and Sun Ra. Always an innovator, Griffin has moved beyond the standard set by these pioneering giants to develop a unique style for an instrument that has hardly been the most widely used in modern music.

Dick Griffin lives in New York where he performs and works on his paintings, which he also uses for his album covers. I took some time to speak with about music, his plans for his new album release, and his plans to tour Europe.

PSF: When did you begin listening to jazz and which artists did you find most interesting before you began playing yourself?

Dick Griffin: I began to listen to jazz in Mississippi when I was in high school. My first jazz record was a Jay and Kai record that I got in the mail from the Columbia record club.

PSF: How important was jazz at that time?

DG: Jazz was very important to me at that time because it was cool to listen to jazz in Jackson. Mississippi. Most of the people who listened to jazz were the hip and educated ones in my town. That included the pimps, hustlers, teachers, doctors and lawyers. The people who drove big cars and had what we called good taste.

PSF: You began singing in a doo-wop group that went on to perform with Sam Cooke. How much of an influence was this on your jazz performances?

DG: I was in a doo-wop group when I was in high school and our group won a prize to open for the Sam Cooke revue. Sam Cooke also invited our group to come on the road with his show, but my mother said no and that was the end of that. Doo-wop singing helped me to develop almost-perfect pitch, which came in very handy when I had to write music. My friend Rashaan Roland Kirk would call me in the middle of the night and sing a melody to me and I could write it down without touching the piano.

PSF: Where did you begin to play the trombone?

DG: I began playing the trombone when I was still in Mississippi in the seventh grade, but originally I wanted to play trumpet. My teacher Mr. Holly told me that he had all the trumpeters he needed but if I wanted to play the trombone I could take a trombone home with me that day and I said, "Okay give it to me."

PSF: At which period in time do you see jazz at its most progressive?

DG: In my opinion, jazz was most progressive in the late '60's and early '70's because that was when avant-garde music made its first appearance and many of the masters and innovators were alive, creating new music every day. People like Mingus, Monk, Trane, Duke, Miles and the list goes on. Today there are a few of the masters still here with us, but the music business is different and record companies play a bigger role in what the public gets to hear.

PSF: Yes, the industry has change dramatically since that time. How did you come together with Sun Ra?

DG: I met Sun Ra in Chicago in the 60s when I was in college at Jackson State University. I would spend my summers in Chicago listening to and learning jazz. As I walked past this hotel one day, I heard some live music at two in the afternoon. It was Sun Ra rehearing his Arkestra. Sun Ra invited me take out my horn and join them. I would rehearse seven days a week and the rehearsal went all day long. I am still connected to the Sun Ra Arkestra and I performed with the Arkestra twice during 2005.

PSF: Which of the artists which you have worked with fascinated you most with their personality and musically?

DG: As far as personality goes, I was treated very well by Marvin Gaye and he was very good to all of his band members. Musically I found Rahsaan, Mingus, Sun Ra, Thad Jones, Art Blakey, Ella Fitzgerald, Abdullah Ibrahim, and Hilton Ruiz all fascinating.

PSF: When did you first decide to build your own band?

DG: I had an R&B Band in high school and a big band when I was in college. I love to compose and one of the best ways to get your music played is to have your own band. I am performing now with my band. I have two CDs on the market now and I will be recording again soon.

PSF: Ah yes, All blues, A dream for Rahsaan, you have some great people working with you on them. Sam Rivers, Gary Bartz and Indris Muhammed are all masters of their art. Moving from playing jazz to working with pop stars like Michael Jackson, was this a difficult transition or a natural one?

DG: Moving from playing jazz to working with Michael Jackson was not difficult because music is not divided in my mind. The same twelve notes exist in any tonal music. The beat may change but the notes are the same and there are only twelve. I love good music and that can come in many colors and flavors. Jazz, Latin, blues, rock, hip hop, R&B, classical, Afro Beat, gospel. The list is endless.

PSF: Are there any musicians which you would like to work with today?

DG: Yes, there are a few around that I would enjoy working with, but it's time for me to do my own thing. I could drop some names but I may overlook someone with whom I would really love to work.

PSF: I know that you have spent some time teaching around the world and you were teaching in Jamaica as far as I remember?

DG: I love teaching because I believe in giving and a powerful way to do that is to teach kids who cannot afford to pay for lessons. I gave workshops in Jamaica and most of the places I have traveled, such as Kenya, Japan and throughout Europe.

PSF: You are painter too. So which form influences the other strongest, your music or your painting?

DG: Music is the strongest influence in my life and it has to be one that influences my painting. My painting is getting attention these days but I don't know if it will ever be the strongest creative influence in my life. There is, however, a strong synergy.

PSF: Looking at jazz today, some people would say that it has died. What's your view on this?

DG: Jazz is not dead until all the creators and appreciators of this music leave the planet. I do think jazz in the form it has been presented is changing. That is, you see new faces, new groups, but they are performing the same kind of music we did years ago. The energy and innovation is more contained. I would like to hear something different. There are some young bands that are catching my ear. Ravi Coltrane and Kenny Garrett immediately come to my mind.

I do think the word jazz has been used to cover music that has absolutely nothing to do with jazz and this has given newcomers to the music the wrong picture of jazz music. Lots of jazz festivals will have no jazz musicians performing. They call it a jazz festival when most of the acts are R&B or hip hop groups. The name jazz is used to draw people, so they should use jazz musicians or call it something else. Jazz is not dead; I play jazz and I am still very much alive.

Dick Griffin's favorite 10 albums:

1. Rahsaan Roland Kirk Volunteered Slavery
2. Miles Davis All Blues
3. John Coltrane Giant Steps
4. Sonny Rollins The Bridge
5. John Coltrane Ascension
6. Coleman Hawkins Body and Soul
7. Charles Mingus Charles Mingus And Friends In Concert
8. Billie HollidayGod Bless The Child
9. Thelonious Monk At Carnegie Hall
10. JJ Johnson The Eminent Jay Jay Johnson, Volume 1

Also see Dick Griffin's website

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