Jazz saxophonist, bandleader
Johnny Griffin, the great jazz tenor saxophonist, was nicknamed "The Little Giant" for his diminutive stature, but he towered over his contemporaries as a musical force. He mastered complex harmonies and rapid-fire tempos, even those of the most demanding bandleaders, in a way that less-accomplished musicians could only envy. For his incredible speed and technical prowess, he earned the distinction "world's fastest saxophonist," but he could also play a ballad just as skillfully as his peers. Over a career that spanned more than six decades, Griffin accompanied many of the jazz greats of the swing and bop eras—most notably John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, but also Lionel Hampton, Joe Morris, Arnett Cobb, Art Blakey, and many others. Griffin was tireless to the end, honking out blues rhythms quite literally until the day he died.
Born a Musician
John Arnold Griffin III was born on April 24, 1928, on the South Side of Chicago. Music was a fixture in the Griffin household: His father had been a cornet player, though he gave up the instrument before Johnny was born, and his mother played the piano and sang in the church choir. Griffin, who clearly had a talent for music from the start, began playing the piano at age six, studying for four years, and then tried his hand at the Hawaiian steel guitar. But then, at age twelve, he heard Gene Ammons play the saxophone with King Kolax's big band at the Parkway Ballroom in Chicago, and he knew that was the instrument for him.
Griffin attended DuSable High School in Chicago, where he studied music under the famous Captain Walter Dyett, who had trained such jazz greats as Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington, as well as saxophonists Ammons and Von Freeman. Though Griffin was eager to learn the alto saxophone, Dyett insisted that Griffin cut his teeth on other instruments first, and so he learned the clarinet, oboe, and English horn before finally taking up the sax in earnest. Griffin began playing with schoolmates in a group called the Baby Band and occasionally with blues guitarist T-Bone Walker.
Coming of age during the 1940s, Griffin was inspired by Charlie "Bird" Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, who were leading the way in popularizing the up-tempo bebop style of jazz. Griffin saw both musicians play in 1945 with Billy Eckstine's band. He also admired the sounds of saxophonists Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, reflecting in the book Talking Jazz, "These cats were really my masters; to me, the greatest sounds ever."
Became a Professional Sax Man
Griffin began his profession just days after his high school graduation in 1945, traveling to Toledo, Ohio, to join up with well-known bandleader Hampton. At the last minute, Griffin was asked to switch from alto to tenor saxophone—forcing him to dash back to Chicago, where he had left his tenor sax, before going out on tour—but it was a change he was happy to make, as he preferred the latter instrument.
When trumpeter Joe Morris split from Hampton in 1947 to form his own rhythm and blues band, Griffin followed. He toured with Morris for the next three years, and played often with noted musicians Philly Joe Jones, Percy Heath, Jo Jones, Gene Ramey, and Cobb.
In 1951 Griffin was drafted into the U.S. Army in the same company as seven other black men from the South Side of Chicago. When they learned that they were destined for Fort Chaffee, in Arkansas, the men refused, knowing what kind of treatment they could expect in the racially charged South. Instead, the group was sent to Hawaii. There, Griffin learned of an opening for an oboist in the army band, and he so impressed a drunken colonel whom he performed for that he was reassigned. The rest of his battalion was sent to Korea, where most died. Griffin later credited the oboe for having saved his life.
Collaborated with Jazz Greats
After his discharge from the army in 1953, Griffin spent several years at home in Chicago before heading back to New York to join drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers as tenor saxophonist in 1957. The group's 1958 recording featuring the legendary Monk on piano marked a turning point in Griffin's career, as it brought him international recognition and initiated a brief but important collaboration between Griffin and Monk. A few months later Griffin left Blakey to join Monk's quartet, replacing Coltrane on the tenor saxophone.
Monk, a pioneer of bebop jazz, was a notoriously difficult bandleader, particularly when playing his own compositions. His improvisational style and complex harmonies made it hard for lesser musicians to keep up. In Talking Jazz, Griffin described the experience of playing live with Monk: "I found it difficult at times, I mean, DIFFICULT. I enjoying playing with him, enjoying playing music, but when I'm playing my solos … the way his comping [accompaniment] is so strong … it's almost like you're in a padded cell. I mean, trying to express yourself, because his music, with him comping, is so overwhelming, like it's almost like you're trying to break out of a room made of marshmallows." Nonetheless, Griffin identified Monk as one of his most rewarding partnerships: "The way he composed, the logic of his compositions, immensely influenced me," Griffin said, as quoted in his obituary in the Independent.
At the same time he was working with Monk, Griffin was emerging as a bandleader in his own right. In 1957 he recorded the now-classic album A Blowin' Session with fellow saxophonists Coltrane and Hank Mobley. In a twist of fate Coltrane had not originally been slated to play on the album—he happened to bump into Griffin and Mobley while they were walking to the recording studio, and they asked him to come along and play with them. In 1958 Griffin fronted the Johnny Griffin Sextet, recording an album of the same name, and in 1960 he led the fourteen-piece Big Soul Band, allowing him to explore the possibilities of a much larger ensemble than he was used to.
From 1960 to 1962 Griffin teamed up with fellow saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis to form a popular two-tenor quintet. In their recordings and performances Griffin and Davis would challenge each other to improvisational duels, to the delight of audiences. The group was informally known as the "Tough Tenors," a term that would be applied to an entire group of saxophonists—including Ammons, Illinois Jacquet, and Houston Person, in addition to Griffin and Davis—who played an aggressive, fast-paced style of hard bop that incorporated elements of gospel and blues.
At a Glance …
Born John Arnold Griffin III on April 24, 1928, in Chicago, IL; died on July 25, 2008, in Availles-Limouzine, France; married Miriam; children: Jo-Onna, Ingrid, John, Cynthia. Military service: U.S. Army, 1951-53.
Career: Played tenor saxophone with Lionel Hampton, 1945-57, Joe Morris, 1947-50, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, 1957, Thelonious Monk, 1958, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, 1960-62, and Kenny Clarke and Francy Boland, 1967-69; led groups including the Johnny Griffin Sextet, 1958, and the Big Soul Band, 1960; collaborated with other artists including Philly Joe Jones, Percy Heath, Jo Jones, Gene Ramey, Arnett Cobb, Bud Powell, Babs Gonzales, Kenny Drew, Art Taylor, and Martial Solal.
Griffin in particular was known for his lightning-fast, energetic, tireless playing, earning him the epithet "world's fastest saxophonist." In a 1958 review in Down Beat magazine, music critic Ralph J. Gleason remarked, "Unquestionably Johnny Griffin can play the tenor saxophone faster, literally, than anyone else alive…. And in the course of playing with this incredible speed, he also manages to blow longer without refueling than you would ordinarily consider possible. With this equipment he is able to play almost all there could possibly be played in any given chorus."
Left America for Europe
As jazz declined in popularity—and commercial success—in the United States during the early 1960s, many jazz musicians moved to Europe, where they felt the environment was more receptive. Griffin, staying true to his bebop roots, held a special disdain for the free or avant-garde jazz that was then all the rage in America. "A lot of those cats can't play. And others can play, but can't swing. How can jazz all of a sudden go completely crazy and have no form," he said, according to his obituary in the Independent. In 1963, facing tax problems and marital difficulties with his first wife, he relocated to Paris, where he played at the Blue Note with other American expatriates such as Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, Kenny Drew, and Art Taylor. From 1967 to 1969 he was a soloist with the multinational big band led by Clarke and Belgian Francy Boland.
Griffin maintained his exile until 1978, when he made a triumphant return to the United States to tour with Dexter Gordon and to record the album Return of the Griffin. Though he continued to make his home in Europe—moving to the Netherlands in 1973, then to the Côte d'Azur in 1980, and finally settling in the rural village of Availles-Limouzine in midwestern France—he made a trip home to Chicago each year during the week of his birthday (April 28) to appear at the Jazz Showcase, usually ending with a week at the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York.
Griffin kept up a vigorous pace of recording and touring well into his sixties and seventies. In 1990 he recorded the album The Cat, followed by Chicago, New York, Paris in 1994. The high point of the later years of his career was a collaboration with Algerian pianist Martial Solal on the album In and Out in 2000. Moderating the furious tempo of his earlier music, Griffin's later recordings display a greater attention to ballads and long solos.
Throughout six decades, Griffin never lost his enthusiasm for the music. "I got so excited when I played and I still do," he said, according to his obituary in the Independent. "I want to eat up the music like a child eating candy." Just days before his death, Griffin played a concert in Hyères, France, and was slated to sit in with American organist Rhoda Smith for a show in Saint-Georges-sur-Cher on the evening of his death, July 25, 2008. Griffin died at his home in Availles-Limouzine at the age of eighty.
Chicago Calling, Blue Note, 1956.
Introducing Johnny Griffin, Blue Note, 1956.
A Blowin' Session, Blue Note, 1957.
The Congregation, Blue Note, 1957.
Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk, Atlantic, 1958.
Johnny Griffin Sextet, Riverside, 1958.
Thelonious in Action, Fantasy, 1958.
Way Out!, Riverside, 1958.
The Little Giant, Riverside, 1959.
Griff and Lock, Jazzland, 1960.
Tough Tenors, 1960.
Wade in the Water, Riverside, 1960.
The Kerry Dancers and Other Swinging Folk, Riverside, 1961.
Lookin' at Monk, Jazzland, 1961,
White Gardenia, Riverside, 1961.
The Man I Love, Polydor, 1967.
You Leave Me Breathless, Black Lion, 1967.
Blues for Harvey, SteepleChase, 1973.
Live in Tokyo, Philips, 1976.
Bush Dance, Galaxy, 1978.
Return of the Griffin, Galaxy, 1978.
Paris Reunion Band, Sonet, 1985.
Take My Hand, Who's Who in Jazz, 1988.
The Cat, Antilles, 1990.
Dance of Passion, Antilles, 1992.
Chicago, New York, Paris, Verve, 1994.
In and Out, Dreyfus, 2000.
Woe Is Me, A Jazz Hour With, 2000.
Johnny Griffin & Steve Grossman Quintet, Dreyfus, 2001.
Close Your Eyes, Minor Music, 2003.
Johnny Griffin and the Great Danes, Stunt, 2003.
Live/Autumn Leaves, Universal International, 2003.
Pisces, Ojc, 2004.
Johnny Griffin & Lockjaw Davis in Copenhagen, Storyville, 2007.
Hennessey, Mike, The Little Giant: The Story of Johnny Griffin, Northway, 2008.
Sidran, Ben, Talking Jazz: An Oral History, revised edition, Da Capo Press, 1994, pp. 195-208.
Guardian (London), July 26, 2008.
Independent (London), July 28, 2008.
New York Times, July 26, 2008.
Jarenwattananon, Patrick,"Fleet Jazz Saxophonist Johnny Griffin Dies," National Public Radio Music, July 25, 2008, http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId_92943737 (accessed August 20, 2008).
"Johnny Griffin: Biography," allmusic, http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p_amg&sql_11:jifwxqt5ldse~T1 (accessed October 28, 2008).
—Deborah A. Ring
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