Jazz musician Frank Griffith, director of performance at Brunel University and leader of The Frank Griffith Nonet, talks to VICTORIA PREWER about playing and teaching music
FOR as long as he can remember, Frank Griffith has had a love of jazz. The American musician, who moved to London 12 years ago, performs regularly with his band, The Frank Griffith Nonet, and recently played to an audience of 2,000 people at the Barbican, alongside the legendary John Dankworth and Cleo Laine.
"As a teenager I was fortunate to have a regular diet of jazz, and was bitten by the bug early," he says.
"My parents were amateur musicians and there was always music around the house.
"I learned classical music and took exams, but preferred jazz as, musically, that appealed to me more.
"I wasn't keen on the classical lifestyle either; playing a piece perfectly and entering competitions wasn't really my thing. I prefer the more relaxed atmosphere of a jazz gig - the mood matches my nature of performing. I like improvisation, developing music on the spot. I like the flexibility and excitement of it."
Born in Oregon, Frank received his masters degree from Manhattan School of Music, and spent 10 years teaching in New York City. The Frank Griffith Nonet, formed there in 1984, was recreated 13 years later following his move to the UK.
Since then, the group has performed throughout Greater London, at venues such as Pizza on the Park, Lauderdale House, The 100 Club and the Royal Festival Hall.
Their next gig is on Saturday, March 15, at Pinner Parish Church, which has become popular with jazz musicians during the past decade and currently hosts up to 10 concerts a year.
"We mix a lot of old and new," says Frank of his band's style.
"We play mainstream and standard jazz of the 1950s and 60s with more current pieces, and we have a singer - Trudy Kerr - who sings a lot of the newer material.
"A lot of our compositions are by John Dankworth and Cleo Laine, as I've had the pleasure to work with them a lot recently. They were both given honorary doctorates in music from Brunel University and attended a ceremony last July. In her speech, Cleo said that she had been brought up in Southall, and had her tonsils taken out in Hillingdon!
"They hope to work with the university in the future; there is talk of Brunel being the place that will one day host their archives."
Frank, who lives in Northwood, has lectured in music at Brunel since 1997 and is now director of performance. Highlights include playing for the Queen on her visit to the Uxbridge campus in May 2006 and forming Jazzbridge, a 20-piece student big band which plays all over the borough.
"The band has very similar principles to the Nonet in that we mix the old and new. We feature student compositions as well," he says.
"We run three classes devoted to improvisation, which is learning to make up music as you go along, with either your instrument or your voice. We also have a class on popular music history, which deals with the 1950s and beyond.
"In the 1960s there was no such thing as jazz on the curriculum; dozens of universities had the attitude that music should be serious. It's something that has happened in America too. I believe it's because they were not aware that jazz and popular music has a significant discipline and history of its own. They didn't see it as something credible. Fortunately that's changing."
Frank has watched his students finish their degrees and go on to do postgraduate degrees and other related qualifications. Many are now teaching music themselves or have gone into music therapy. Others have even become professional musicians.
"It's incredibly rewarding seeing your students progress and do well," he says.
"And as a performer, I've played music with ex-students on a number of occasions."
As well as teaching and doing gigs, Frank is kept busy writing articles and composing music. One of his most recent pieces, Roundabout, for clarinet and strings, was commissioned by Hillingdon Music Services and premièred last December.
In 2006 Frank was commissioned by the London Borough of Ealing to write a piece for the Ealing Jazz Festival. The finished work, Agent W5, is a tribute to the 1960s spy thriller soundtracks associated with Ealing Studios.
The Frank Griffith Nonet is regularly part of the festival line-up and will be part of the programme this July.
"We enjoy playing at the jazz festival. It's a great annual event, now in its 25th year," he says.
"I'd love to see one in Hillingdon and Harrow, too."
Frank admits that he loves life in the UK.
"I married an English girl and we had a son - who's now 13. Circumstances brought me here," he says.
"I have no plans to go back to America as this is home to me now.
"One of the great advantages of living and working in London is that there's so many fantastic places nearby for me to play my music. I've had so many great opportunities."