John Altman writes: There was a time in the late 60s/early 70s when Malcolm Griffiths, who passed away this week aged 79, seemed to be everywhere on the world jazz scene. First call for the Mike Westbrook Band, Mike Gibbs Orchestra, Brotherhood of Breath, John Dankworth Band, John Surman’s Octet, Stan Tracey’s Octet and Big Band, lead ‘bone with the Buddy Rich Big Band and winner of the Downbeat Talent Deserving Wider Recognition poll on trombone. He appeared to be at the vanguard of an exciting new generation of trombonists – Paul Rutherford, Nick Evans, Radu Malfatti, Chris Pyne, Paul Nieman – all in their own way revolutionising the instrument. He won plaudits from Roswell Rudd, Jimmy Knepper, Albert Mangelsdorff and Carla Bley among others – one of his biggest champions and closest friends was Gil Evans who insisted that Malcolm put together his UK and European bands and that he be the key soloist.
I first got to know him during the Westbrook era. He lived in the notorious musicians’ house in Sinclair Road (and told me of the evening they brought Coleman Hawkins round and put on an album of the master only to be asked ‘don’t you have any Rollins or Coltrane?’ by the great Bean.) When he joined Buddy Rich at very short notice due to a trombonist’s sudden ‘indisposition’ he quickly became Buddy’s lead player and confidante. He went to the US with the band and we all thought that was the last we’d see of him. Weeks later he was back – itching to play cricket! A fine sportsman, he could have played professional soccer and was a more than handy cricketer. (And he wasn’t the first to turn down a lucrative American career because he’d miss the game – my uncle Sid Phillips did exactly the same thing in 1938!). He picked up his UK career where he’d left off, seemingly showing up in every British band and established himself as an in-demand session player (among his many studio credits was playing on The Pogues’ Fairytale of New York).
When I began my career as a composer and arranger for records, movies and commercials he was my trombonist of choice, and when I formed my big band in 1985 he was a shoo-in for lead trombone and one of the main soloists.
Griff came quite late to professional music making. Encouraged by Jeff Nuttall, the actor, poet and at one time Malcolm’s art teacher, he began playing at various clubs around London where he first met John Surman. For a while he pursued a dual career as an economics lecturer at LSE and a jazz trombonist until he joined the Rich band. His all-time hero was Lawrence Brown and for many years we discussed (hopefully with tongue in cheek) the music he’d like played at his funeral which included Ellington’s All Too Soon (prophetic) and some Mingus, Bill and Gil Evans. Sadly this pandemic has denied him that moment. After his health deteriorated some years ago he would still tell me he practiced every day and asked when our next big band gig was – unfortunately this also was never to be.
One thing that may surprise fans of his playing with Stan Tracey etc was his versatility in ‘older’ styles of jazz. He could emulate Kid Ory or Jack Teagarden on demand and shared my love of Jack Jenney’s playing. His playing is omnipresent on the Joan Hickson Miss Marple series I scored for the BBC, many of George Fenton’s TV and movie scores and countless other pop and MOR recordings – in fact too numerous to list, they do show that he wasn’t only a so called ‘avant garde’ soloist but a totally rounded player, albeit with an instantly recognizable voice. I spoke to him last week and mentioned the loss of his close friends Don Weller, Pete King and Ron Mathewson – I don’t think he really took the information in and in light of what happened subsequently I’m quite pleased. It’s perhaps trite to say it but their music and legacy will live on.
Malcolm Jesse Griffiths. Born Barnet, 29 September 1941. Died Deal, Kent, 19 January 2021
TOP: Cork Jazz Festival 1985. John Altman Big Band. “Steve Sidwell behind Griff and Mick Pyne lurking… ”
LOWER: “Malcolm Griffiths, soloing at a warm up gig for the tour with Alison Moyet, Prince of Wales Buckhurst Hill . Many dear friends visible including Mick Pyne, Jeff Clyne, Henry Lowther, Steve Waterman, Vince Sullivan, Pete Beachill, Steve Saunders, Bob Sydor, Bill Skeat, Ray Warleigh, Andy Mackintosh. Hidden are Bill Eyden, Stuart Brooks, Steve Sidwell, Mitch Dalton, Chris Albert, Ronnie Ross, Graham Read. ”