April 26, 1960: Rollins Griffith’s Nonet
The Rollins Griffith Nonet, which included bassist Bernie Griggs and drummer Baggy Grant in the rhythm section with the bandleader, appeared in concert at the Hotel Bradford on April 26, 1960.
Rollins Griffith graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in 1949 and worked around town, but his first significant job came in 1952 at the Hi-Hat, as pianist in Hi Lockhart’s house band. When that ended in 1953, he moved over to Storyville, first in a trio with Slam Stewart and Marquis Foster, then with Jimmy Woode and Jo Jones. In January 1954, Griffith, along with Foster and Woode, played with Charlie Parker at the Hi-Hat, a session later released on record. Then we don’t hear much from him until 1959, possibly because he was earning two masters degrees, one in music from Boston University and the other in education from Boston State College.
In June 1959, Griffith rolled out a nonet for the Boston Arts Festival, sharing the stage with Herb Pomeroy’s orchestra. The nonet worked sporadically for about a year, including this two-night gig in the Bradford’s Grand Ballroom. Other than some trio work in 1960–61, the nonet marked the end of Griffith’s active jazz career. His day job became all-important.
There were powerful players in the nonet. One was trombonist Chuck Connors, a Boston Conservatory graduate soon to join Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. The trumpeters were Roger Parrot and Al Bryant. The Springfield, Mass-born Bryant worked with Ellington, Lionel Hampton, and Clark Terry, and reunited with Parrot in 1984 in the New York branch of Jaki Byard’s Apollo Stompers. The saxophonists were Harold “Bunky” Emerson, Douglas Lee, and Wilfred Todd. Joining Griffith in the rhythm section were local standouts Bill Grant on drums and Bernie Griggs on bass. Paul Broadnax contributed arrangements to Griffith’s book.
But then there was Griffith’s day job. He started as a music teacher in the Boston schools in 1951. He was named an assistant principal in 1966, a principal in 1969, and an assistant superintendent in 1970, the first African-American chosen for that position. He served in the school system through the very worst years of Boston’s public school crisis, working as the man in the middle of a multitude of parties in conflict. Perhaps it wore him out. Griffith died of leukemia on Jan 2, 1978, at age 52.
Griffith’s shadow in the Boston school system is long. Today there is both a Rollins Griffith Memorial Scholarship for college-bound Boston students, now in its tenth year, and the Rollins Griffith Teacher Center, a training facility.