On a Friday afternoon, Arthur Griffin Jr. stands behind a worn upright piano in a second-floor classroom of Best Practice High School, near Damen and Adams on the West Side. He’s leading a dozen students in vocal warms-ups – do-re-mis followed by a rhythmic exercise.
“One, two, three, four – one two three, rest,” the students chanted, clapping their hands in beat but breaking apart at the end of the line.
“Do it again. Don’t forget about the tie, in the second to the last measure,” Griffin said. “So you’re tying a half-note to a quarter-note. How many beats are you holding up? Three.”
The students started again. They were making progress, staying together on the hand clap this time. Griffin then passed out lyrics and sheet music to three numbers, and led the students in song (“Ah!” “Sing out!” “Hold it on the four”) until the bell. On the following Sunday, at little past 11 a.m., Griffin sat down with his 8-year-old daughter on the second-floor balcony at First Baptist Congregational Church, 1613 W. Washington near Ashland – dad and daughter are stage left of where the choir was singing.
The service had already started, but the musician had two previous engagements – he was scheduled to play at the 8 a.m. service at First Baptist, and during a 9:30 a.m. mass at St. Malachy right down the street from First Baptist on Washington.
The initial songs Sunday featured a choir backed by drum and bass, everyone singing. Griffin didn’t play, at first. He leads the sanctuary choir at First Baptist, handling the church’s organ – a massive instrument with 47 pipes encased in dark wood.
Griffin, 46, is powerfully built man with a thick torso, long dreadlocks, a curly beard and a collection of finely tailored suits. His presence playing and teaching music makes him merely the latest member of his family to do so.
Their musical connections to the area stretch back decades. In the 1940s, a great grandmother on his mother’s side worked as music director at Union Park, located just east of First Baptist, the church his father, the late Arthur Griffin Sr., led for years.
The elder Griffin held a doctorate in music. He composed his own sacred music and mixed political activism in with religious teachings. This was a challenging legacy to face.
“I always felt like, ‘Oh my God, I’ll never live up to his caliber of work.’ Yet he was very, very supportive of what I did,” Griffin said of his dad. “Music was sort of in the blood. When it came to lessons there was no choice. I had to take piano lessons. I actually started at the age of 6, with my grandmother teaching me…I started taking piano and cello lessons from then on.”
A graduate of Whitney Young High School, he then went on to study physics and music at Concordia University in River Forest. There, he learned church music from the Baroque period, classical music, the French Romantics.
At both Young and Concordia, Griffin was motivated to get better thanks to the skill level achieved by his peers. After graduating in 1984, he taught vocal music and music history at Whitney Young from 1985 to 1994, one of the first graduates to later become a teacher at the West Loop-based magnet high school.
First Baptist took him on as senior organist in 1987. He admits to trying some “terribly difficult” music in the church, like Bach preludes. Today, a service there might include a range of styles, from gospel numbers to Griffin’s specialty: the classical organ tunes.
His next post in the Chicago Public Schools system came at DuSable High School in Bronzeville, where he served a physics instructor. Then in 1996, Griffin came back to the Near West Side to design the science program at Best Practice, down to the length of the lab tables. He later joined Best Practice’s administration, then considered one of the city’s cutting edge small schools. He’s now teaching music there.
The Chicago Board of Education voted to shut down Best Practice, leaving him pondering his next post. Griffin worries the 25 years of experience he’s accrued may work against him, as schools prefer to hire younger, less expensive teachers.
Still, Griffin is staying busy with music education – playing on Sunday, participating in gospel workshops and working with CPS on developing music curricula for city schools. Elective classes are getting eaten up by requirements for math, history and science, but music and other arts, he insists, shouldn’t be left by the wayside.
“It’s an aesthetic. It’s a part of life. How do you escape music? At any point in time, the radio’s on. You’re hearing music all the time,” Griffin said. “Appreciation of the arts – dance, poetry, theater – all of these are aspects of human existence.”