|back||Southern Living January 2005|
He makes beautiful music himself, as fans around his Chapel Hill stomping grounds know. A talented pianist, classically trained, Robert’s paying gigs tend toward the scat and improvisation of Coltrane more than the formality and breeding of Tchaikovsky. But he loves them both. His eyes light up when he talks about music. He closes them when he plays.
of music is apt to play in Robert’s head and trickle down to
his fingers. “If I were just to sit down and play in a vacuum
I can go through a lot of different things,” he says, pondering
his career while relaxing on the screened porch of the Carborro home
he shares with his wife Diana.
Robert’s moment in the biggest spotlight so far may have come in his association with Katherine Whalen, former lead singer of the zoot suit swinging Squirrel Nut Zippers. Robert’s the guy tickling the ivories on her album, Katherine Whalen’s Jazz Squad to critical acclaim. Or maybe Robert’s tour across France with Tazwho does a mean impression of Louis Armstrong when she wantscame closer to giving him a household name.
Either way, however, “Griffanzo,” as he sometimes calls himself, generously praises his cohorts, all fellow travelers on stages friendly to Tar Heel jazz. For example, he calls chanteuse Eve Cornelious, wife and partner of pianist Chip Crawford, “One of the best singers I’ve ever heard.” Of the late bassist Salim Malik, Robert says, “ He was the first guy I ever played with who made my heart stop.”
As a working musician, Robert fondly remembers days when Chapel Hill overflowed with jazz, or as he puts it, “Every club in town, every restaurant had a jazz night.” Back in the 1980s, before financial considerations shut down one club after another, talented players would walk in, dig the scene and and join the session. “It was almost never just one person playing. And these were all just the best players,’” Robert says. One night, no less than Wynton Marsallies dropped into one of the clubs, then said to a buddy, “Go out to the car and get my trumpet,” Robert says.
At UNC -Chapel Hill he studied with a professor named Clifton Matthews who pushed him to practice 10 to 14 hours a day. “Fabulous. A great musician and a really, really good teacher,” Robert says.
But Robert hit an educational crescendo during a summer program in Italy studying orchestra. He lived in Rome, where he found himself inspired by the art and the history. “That was life altering,” he says. “When something just elevates your consciousness it affects everything else. You just want to get better.”
And he did, through further education, through teaching, and mostly through playing. Today Robert’s skills keep his love of music before jazz fans in his home state. Although he’s not exactly preaching with his pianothe way his grandfather might havehis listeners know that in his own way, Griffanzo still keeps the faith.
Robert Griffin’s love for fellow musicians born in the Tar Heel state led him to record the self-produced album North Carolina A State of Music in 1999. The disc includes: