This amazing percussionist, composer and producer has roots that extend back to the most revolutionary era of jazz – be bop – thanks to his uncle: the great trumpeter/composer Clifford Brown. Indeed, it was being made pridefully aware of his uncle’s music very early in life by his aunt Larue Brown Watson (Clifford’s widow) and studying it that deeply influenced Rayford to become the far reaching musician that he is today. In that spirit, Rayford is in the process of completing Reflections of Brownie – his second album as a leader and his first since 2003’s Rebirth of the Cool – in a loving and fittingly innovative fashion.
Rayford Griffin was born February 6, 1958, in Indianapolis, Indiana, to a minister father (Reverend Thomas J. Griffin) and a mother (Geneva Brown) who was a Howard University music major, so his music appreciation started early. It was the drum solos of Art Blakey and Max Roach on albums by his late, lamented uncle, trumpeter Clifford Brown, that lured him to the drums. Rayford got his first drum (a field snare) at the age of 10 and played in his grade school marching band and orchestra. He got his first full set of drums (all the way from Japan) at 13.
From the 8th grade through high school, he studied with Tom Akins, principle timpanist for the Indianapolis Symphony, who provided Rayford with a polished precision on drum set, snare and tympani that would give him a lifelong edge over most other drummers. “I used to take turns playing James Brown beats with other drummers my age,” Rayford states. “They could play but didn’t necessarily know what they were doing. Tom gave me a firm understanding of what I was hearing and all the technical information.” Aside from a brief flirtation with trombone in high school, drums have remained Rayford’s primary instrument.
Rayford was raised on a steady diet of uncle Clifford’s classics, the symphonic soul of Isaac Hayes, the earth blues basics of Jimi Hendrix and Buddy Miles, and the revolutionary jazz-rock fusion of Billy Cobham and Lenny White (in the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever, respectively). Among the bands he played in as a teen at Shortridge High, Rayford found himself in Tarnished Silver, which also included a young Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Daryl Simmons and Tom Borton self-proclaimed “Earth, Wind & Fire wanna-bes.” Rayford even sang lead on songs such as “Can’t Hide Love” and WAR’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness.”
During his one year as a music major at Indiana State Rayford studied music theory and nabbed Best Drummer honors at three competitions, including the Elmhurst Jazz Festival. This led to him joining local fusion monsters, Merging Traffic, in 1977. One of their first gigs was opening for violinist Jean-Luc Ponty. In an interview for Modern Drummer magazine, Ponty recalled. “As we were coming into the hall, (Merging Traffic) was playing. In fact, it was during Rayford’s drum solo. Usually everybody just goes back to the dressing room while there’s an opening band on. But this time, everyone stayed to watch the drum solo. Rayford had the crowd in his hand.” A few years later, Rayford’s mother and older brother, Thomas, scraped together the money to send him to Los Angeles for an audition with Ponty (which he nailed), upon which time he embarked on the most high profile gig of his career playing with Ponty for six years and five albums (1981-1987).
“One year we played the Santa Monica Civic and everybody I listened to growing up was backstage: Stanley Clarke, George Duke, Lee Ritenour.”
Rayford would end up playing with most of them.