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Tea Break

A series where musicians and others stop by for an imaginary Tea Break to talk about their music and projects.

Frank Griffith

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Saxophonist, clarinettist, composer and arranger Frank Griffith was born in Eugene, Oregon in 1959. Years before, his great grandfather had been a farmer in Wales, and like many others, had emigrated to farm in the New World. Frank’s father married an American girl who was a music major, a gifted pianist and vocalist and it was she who really brought music to the family.

In 1980, at twenty one, Frank left home and headed for New York City and started at the Manhattan School of Music. By the time he graduated in 1984, he had been exposed to some significant experiences in jazz playing with Ron Carter, Jon Hendricks and Jack McDuff. He was asked to join The Glenn Miller Orchestra on alto sax for a nationwide tour in 1984. "It was an amazing experience and I met some great people," says Frank, "But a long time travelling is not so good." He played with the orchestras of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Buddy Rich, Mel Lewis and Mel Tormé. "One of Mel’s saxophonists, Andy Fusco, fell ill, and I received this call asking if I would dep.",   Frank recalls, "The thing about Mel Tormé was that he was not just a vocalist but a talented arranger and composer and a good drummer and vibes player. This made him aware of the whole thing and enabled him to sing with, be part of, the band, rather than just a singer."

In 1996, Frank, married and with a son, moved to London and joined the Peter Cater Band. Frank first put together his Nonet in 1999. Their appearance at the Ealing Jazz Festival in 2000 was recorded and released by Hepjazz, under the predictable titleThe Frank Griffith Nonet ‘Live’ at Ealing Jazz Festival 2000. He haS played with numerous other bands as well as his Nonet and also taught at Brunel University in London. Frank subsequently moved to Liverpool where, amongst other activities, he hosts a regular jazz programme on radio.

I caught up with Frank for a Tea Break:


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Hi Frank, How are you? There is a nice café on the corner over there that looks quiet enough to chat. What can I get you – coffee, tea ….?

 Coffee will do me fine, Ian .... and thanks.

Do you fancy a cake or something? I’ve given up trying to moderate control over my waistline.


Yes, .. me too; I'm afraid that my "bay window" enters the room well before I do these days. "Older but wider" as they say .... I'll settle for a sugar free bun of some sort.


Good idea, that sounds like a reasonable compromise! I'll see what they have. I hadn’t realised how much time has passed since we last met up in London. How are things going here in Liverpool? It must be quite different to back in that time?

Yes, Liverpool is working out quite well, actually. I moved here in 2018 and there's lots going on. I formed a weekly jazz workshop five years ago along with a few others to play several gigs per month. A fair bit of arranging too -  mostly for forces outside of Liverpool. One of whch is trumpeter Chris Hodgkins' quartet. He picks  great tunes from the 1940/50s  with references to a particular artist  (Nat Cole, Satchmo, Clark Terry, Al Cohn, et al) and I fashion them for his lineup of trumpet, alto sax, guitar and bass. A  nifty  ensemble to write for. Also, one of the key differences of the North West compared to London is that Liverpool and Manchester are 40 miles apart yet close enough to work on both scenes. Two different venues geographically yet constantly interchanging with each other.


Tell me about the radio programme? When is it and how can people listen? Do you have a particular approach?

My radio show, THE JAZZ CAVERN, has been going for 3 years now. 155 shows to date! It airs weekly on,  an online station. I also have a live version of it on Liverpool Community Radio  ( which is monthly but is repeated several times a week. I have a bespoke guest to talk about matters jazz and live music in the North West - not just players and singers but venue gaffers and people associated with other art forms that include jazz in some way. My general approach is to have a New Releases programmes every 4/5 weeks along with  compilation programmes of Jazz Greats as well as tributes to recently deceased artists. Sadly, becoming more frequent as time goes by.


Do you have regular listeners who get in touch with the programme? I take it you haven’t had phone calls from a woman asking you to “Play Misty For Me” as in the Clint Eastwood movie?

I don't have callers (which is good - especially if it was  the character played by Jessica Walter In Play Misty For Me which was Clint's 1970 debut film, by the way) - but I get a handful of emails from listeners. Lots of whom  are USA based as Pure Jazz Radio is located in New York City. I often advise listeners that if I play anything too outrageous they can report me to the Jazz Radio Police - their website being - Haha- Actually, no such website exists ..... yet!

I hadn't realised that Pure Jazz Radio is based in America, but the Jazz Radio Police could be quite useful to keep an eye on those with a record who have been recently released. Talking of movies, and leaving aside his personal life issues, you and I often talk about Woody Allen’s films. Of the recent ones, I remember you liked Blue Jasmine while I preferred Midnight In Paris. He always seems to include jazz in his film scores – he of course plays clarinet – but I have never asked you what you think of his clarinet playing?

Woody's clarinet playing was summed up once by either George Coleman or Kenny Davern (or both) as "the only time that Woody made me laugh was when he picked up the clarinet".  Woody's clarinet hero was New Orleans  trad stylist George Lewis, who had a rather thin and squeaky tone quality (sorry George) which Woody aimed to emulate .... with great success, I might add. Aside from that the music in Woody's films heyday from 1975-1995 was a wondrous mix of classic American standards and jazz artists. One of the great hallmarks of his films.

I don't know whether you have seen the video, Frank, I think from around 2006, where Woody is interviewed and then plays with a band? It sort of sums up the man and his music and what you are saying.

Looking back you have had some amazing vocalists singing with your band – Trudy Kerr, Georgia Mancio and of course Tina May who sadly passed away in 2022. What was Tina like – I never met her?


Tina was a fantastic singer to collaborate with. Not only for her ability as a vocalist and intepreter of lyrics but her openess to doing vocalese (no lyrics) with the horns. She did some scatting but didn't insist on doing it on every song,  as some singers do. While she could read, play piano and clarinet she had the most amazing ability to memorise lines immediately which I utilised - intergrating her voice  with the ensemble. She was also very flexible with settling on keys for songs. While largely having a soprano range she could find those low notes in her boots when necessary. While she recorded around  25 CDs,  all of them were with small groups excepting the three that we did. Tina had a voice that could hold her own with a larger group unlike many singers. We also wrote two  songs together - (my music, her words) that haven't been played since her untimely passing in March 2022 but perhaps we'll rectify this at some stage. We made 3 CDs together- all released on the hepjazz label. One big band and two with a nonet.

I hope you do get to play those two songs.. People can hear Tina singing with your big band on Oh, You Crazy Moon on number 20 in your website's 'tracks' selection here.

Working with Trudy and Georgia was fruitful  and magical too; both of whom I wrote several nonet arrangments for. Georgia, as many will know, is a wonderful lyricist (See her work with Alan Broadbent) and wrote a great lyric to my tune "May Cafe". Trudy was the first singer in my nonet (in 2002) and sings to great effect on our 2003 CD "The Coventry Suite".  Her treatments of Cole Porter's "So In Love" , Bobbie Gentry's "Ode To Billie Joe" and Ellington's "I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart" are unique and distinctive.

I'm a big fan of Georgia and her work with Alan is great. As for Trudy, I agree, I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart is excellent.

So, what gigs are you playing these days?

I recently played at the annual Nantwich Jazz and Blues Festival held on Easter Weekend. My nonet has a bi-monthly residency at a leading jazz venue in Liverpool called Frederiks Bar. The money is modest (of course) but at least it's not a door gig! Regular low pay is more acceptable than unexpected low money. The nonet also played in January at 'Sunday Jazz In Wigan' run by Ian Darrington  who has been responsible for the annual Wigan Jazz Festival for the last 40 years.


Is there a thriving jazz venue scene in Liverpool? Many smaller venues seem to be struggling these days, but then I hear of other places starting up. My son-in-law runs a pub/venue in North Somerset and the monthly jazz club there seems to regularly attract 100 to 200 people. The difference all seems very strange.

Yes, there are ten or  so Liverpool venues that offer jazz on a weekly basis. Many more than Manchester which is twice the size of Liverpool. One reason for this is the availability of different kinds of venue besides pubs and clubs for the music. These includes churches, arts centres and art galleries, et al. I'll be playing two concerts at a venue called Gallery 455 soon, providing a musical backdrop to recitations of new  poems written by local up and coming poets. Our trio is called "Poetrio"..... (of course..)


Is there anyone you have come across up here that you think we should look out for in the future?

Yes, I have worked with a wonderful young singer called Ni Maxine who is quite special. She's based in Liverpool but has played in London a bit. She's a fan of Billie Holiday as well as performing her own more contemporary material, both of which she handles with aplomb. Keep an eye (or both eyes, for that matter) out for her ... defo.

Both eyes and both ears then! Listening to Ni's video of God Bless The Child I know what you mean Frank. It's really distinctive.

So, what's the plan for the rest of the year Frank?


Ah! I thought you'd never ask.  I'm recording a 10tet CD on the 25th of June in Glasgow for the Hep label. The theme of which is Scots derived Jazz. I laughingly refer to it  as "Jazzgow" (groan) as a working title (as its not likely to make the cut with that title.) It'll be with an all (star) Scots band that will include the likes of Colin Steele, Gordon Campbell, Tom Gordon, Dave Milligan and Ewan Hastie, among others. I've written five pieces for it along with two from trombonist and composer, Adrian Fry - originally from Southampton and  now resident in Peterhead - twenty miles north of Aberdeen! Now that's pretty much the span of the UK, innit? England's loss is Scotland's gain, I say.


That sounds exciting - there are so many great musicians in Scotland these days - you must let me know when it eventually comes out. As this café is not very busy yet, how about choosing one of your videos from YouTube that we can listen to while I get in another coffee?

Hmmm - If you Google The Frank Griffith Nonet on Youtube you will find 20 or so clips to pick from, but how about a video from last year of Billy Strayhorn's Little Brown Book with my Trio  - Richard Wetherall (piano) and  Dave Tompkins (bass)?


That's a good choice. It's been great to see you again, Frank. Take care and we must check in again soon – or at least when Woody Allen’s annual film comes out – assuming it is on general release!

Ab-so-lotly, Ian, and thanks for that coffee and bun. As long as Woody continues to make films (he's a spry 89 these days) I'll be the one in the front of the queue with my ticket in hand ....

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