back  Southern Living January 2005

Piano Man
Keeping the Faith

by Nick Patterson

Native son Robert Griffin may be classically trained but his heart beats to a jazz tempo.

Robert Griffin talks in jazz—his words spilling out in a steady rhythmic stream one minute, chasing off in a tangent the next, stopping to smell the rose of a distant memory, circling back to the point in the end. Robert speaks as a jazzman should, with a love of sound, and a sense of irony, unmistakably demonstrating the intensity with which he loves his music and the people who make it.

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.

Piano Man
Any given week, you can find him holding court at Chapel Hill’s Carolina Club. Less frequently, Robert plays at Jayzz Jazz and Blues Club in Raleigh, and on occasion, provides the mood at private parties. He even tutors a student or two, extending his love of teaching from the days when he worked at Campbell University (where he jammed with student jazz players on Monday nights), and the University of North Carolina–Asheville.

Any kind 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.
To Robert, all music is worthy of being loved, and all music belongs to everybody. “Music is transcendent,” he says, with a look in his eyes that suggests he’s transcending right now. Robert’s love of music goes back to his family – his forebears were traveling, singing, playing evangelists from New Bern, where Robert himself was born.

Brushes with Greatness
When Robert’s playing, it’s the listener’s turn to let the mind wander, propelled and cajoled by the stylings of a piano player who knows his way around a song. He might turn James Taylor’s signature Carolina In My Mind into a classical-sounding piece in his solo disc North Carolina: A State of Music. Or Robert might take a more understated role backing his friend Carter Minor on their album Blue Spot in C Minor. He often works with various combinations of the same talented band of Carolina Club regulars, Tim Smith, Taz Halloween and Don Gladstone.

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 Taz—who does a mean impression of Louis Armstrong when she wants—came 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.

Good Teachers
Robert’s education in music led him to his professional career. As a teenager he studied classical piano with Arvids Snornieks, the former Latvian Minister of Culture. His teacher had moved to North Carolina after a harrowing escape from, and capture by Nazis during the war, and a near miss during the Dresden firebombing. “Brilliant man,” Robert says. “He taught me for three years..”

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 piano—the way his grandfather might have—his 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:

Carolina In My Mind by James Taylor
Rhythm-A-Ning/Petit Adrienne by Thelonious Monk and Robert Griffin
Black Mountain Rag by Doc Watson
Freight Train by Elizabeth Cotton
It Ain’t You by the Squirrel Nut Zippers
Killing Me Softly by Roberta Flack
Hot Buttered Rum by the Red Clay Ramblers
Woody Woodpecker theme by Kay Kyser
Uncle Josh by Mike Cross
Giant Steps by John Coltrane
Lullaby for Lindsay by Robert himself.

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