Biography | Southern Living Article
|Robert Griffin Timeline|
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One thirty in the morning and the downtown Chapel Hill club crowd is thinning. Sweet and diaphanous, a cascade of notes like the veil of a Great Smokies waterfall pours over the murmurs of conversation. In the dim light, Robert Griffin sits at the piano, eyes closed, his smile beatific, his chin tracing the beat. The last note fades; someone claps. Then, wakening from the dream, the audience breaks into applause. Robert smiles, warm and genuine. A quick thank you, and his left hand is shaping a new groove and that miraculous right hand, at first on familiar ground, is soon spinning another web to catch our imaginations.
He'll surprise you every time. "Jazz" is such an amorphous term. Nominally, Robert is a jazz pianist. And, sure enough, he'll wrap all seventeen of his fingers around God Bless the Child or My Funny Valentine with the best of them. But when he starts improvising is when his voice rises above the pack. Listening to Robert Griffin play the piano is like listening to someone who speaks perfect English, but with a hint of some unplaceable foreign accentyou try to trace it, but you can't quite figure out if it's German or Slavic or Portuguese. To be sure, one hears "jazz" when Robert sits down at the keyboard, but there are cryptic hints of alien waters tributaries from the baroque traditions, bays of blues, estuaries of folk and pools of pop. He comes by all these influences honestly, but the deepest aquifers in Robert Griffin's musical vocabulary spring directly from the red clay of North Carolina.
Robert spent his early years up the Neuse River in New Bern, NC. His grandfather was a singing Christian evangelist. With Robert's grandmother accompanying him on piano, Robert's father playing the violin and Robert's uncle on clarinet and trumpet, they "did the traveling minstrel bit, only it was in churches." With his young ears steeped in those traditions, fate threw this Carolina lad a curve ball: in his teens Robert began piano lessons with Arvids Snornieks, the former Latvian Minister of Culture. Those two mythic musical forces classical Europe and red dirt North Carolinaare the leitmotifs of his life, and of this luminous collection of musical interpretations.
When I first heard Robert play back in 1993 I imagined from the refinement of his style that he'd had some serious classical training. As I got to know him, he gradually, almost hesitantly, revealed a bit of his background to me. He'd studied with Clifton Matthews, now at the School of the Arts in Winston-Salem NC, at UNC-Chapel Hill. He'd graduated with a degree in Music in '69, after studying in Italy for a season under Guido Agosti. The year he earned his UNC degree, he went north to study briefly under Jacob Maxim at the New England Conservatory of Music. Prohibitive costs drove him from NECM to Syracuse University, where he studied under George Papastavro. He gave his Masters recital there in 1972, earning his M.A. Degree.
The world lay before him, but North Carolina called. Robert returned home and moved to the Smoky Mountains where yet another river of southern musical tradition poured into his oceanic imagination. After a stint teaching piano at Campbell University and UNC-Asheville, he formed the band 'Round Midnight with Rita Hayes and Jeff Johnson. While living in the Asheville area, he also began composing seriously. By 1982, he had moved back to Chapel Hill. With his commitment to his music undiminished, but facing the realities of feeding his three fine kidsJed, Lindsay, and Erinhe found himself composing soundtracks for UNC-TV, countless corporate videos, and more advertisements than he can remember. He also became a familiar fixture in the state-wide jazz scene, performing both solo and with various trios and quartets, generally several times a week, year after year, forever refining his prodigious chops and his lyrical ear.
The real high points of Robert's career, as any happy listener will tell you, are those sublime moments of inspiration that come, pass, and live on only in our memoriesRobert's perfect glissando under Carter Minor's wailing blues harp, the rhythmic banter between his fabled left hand and Cecil Johnson's funky saxophone. Easier to capture in writing are mere facts: his 1989 tour of France with chanteuse Taz Halloween; his delightful recreation of the music of North Carolina's own star of '40s radio, Betty Rann; his evocation of Tom Waits, with singer Callie Warner. Most recently, he's been on the national scene, working with Katherine Whalen and Jimbo Mathus of Squirrel Nuts Zippers fame, under the banner of The Jazz Squad.
A bit shyly, Robert's classical training always peeked out from behind the veil of all the jazz and pop. As I mentioned earlier, he seemed hesitant to talk much about it. One evening, well into a bottle of Jameson's Irish whiskey, my wife Jodie and I coaxed Robert to sit down at the pianousually no great task, but tonight we had Daniel Barenboim playing Mozart on the stereo and the score sitting on the piano's music rack. From a coldbut not cold soberstart, he began sight-reading Sonata #9, sometimes keeping up fluidly with Barenboim note-for-note, and sometimes banging his head in comic despair on the keyboard. It wasn't performance for Lincoln Center, but it broke the ice. After that, Robert shared some recordings of Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Prokofiev he'd made in his academic days, and we began to fathom the deeper picture: a young virtuoso, pulled off the traditional academic concert-hall course by some fateful voodoo brew of his minstrel blood and the call of his native soil, drawing him directly back to his musical rootsthe very traditions that have made North Carolina such an engine of American musical folklore.
One day last May, sitting with his fair lady, Diana, and Jodie in our garden, Robert casually announced his intention to record some "interpretations" of tunes by a few North Carolina composers and songwriters. We all toasted it as a splendid notionand probably attributed it to the vapors of Springtime in the Piedmont. But a few weeks later, Robert played us his take on James Taylor's lovely anthem, Carolina On My Mind, and we began to realize what an extraordinary creative event we were witnessing. The familiar tune was therebut so were shades of Bach. Later, Mike Cross's comedic song, Uncle Josh, took on the dynamic complexity of Prokofiev. He worked the same alchemy with a host of other Carolina staples: works by Thelonius Monk, Elizabeth Cotton, John Coltrane, The Red Clay Ramblers, Doc Watson. In every case, he honors the melody and the spirit of the original composition, but always suffuses it with something else, something paradoxically both "classical" and yet unique to his own southern musical taproot. Cottonfield eastern North Carolina blues fuse with the highest pianistic traditions of European culture. The root-Celtic drone of mountain music marries gospel, bows toward Russia, and returns to an evangelistic medicine show in New Bern back in the Depression. And somehow, in Robert's deft hands, the rivers of all these traditions flow home, into the familiar ocean of a single coherent vision.
And maybe Robert Griffin has come home too: back to everything he's ever beenand merrier and simpler and wiser for it. Sit back; enjoy. If you love music and North Carolina, you're about to have an eye-popping good time.
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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: