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"When Bird [alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker] was alive, I wouldn't go near him too much," he said. "The same thing goes for [tenor saxophonists] Don Byas and Dexter Gordon. They were very strong. I felt it wouldn't do my playing any good. I might start playing like them.
- Johnny Griffin, tenor saxophonist
“If saxophone playing had a Formula One division, Johnny Griffin would have pole position every start- or he would have had before he discovered a gentler and more lyrical side to his musical personality. Born in Chicago, the Little Giant was part of the first bebop generation, but he only really found his true voice in the '505, often in partnership with Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis, with whom he duelled to often spectacular effect. Griffin spent some time in Europe in the '6os but has enjoyed a resurgence back home in more recent years.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
“Johnny Griffin, a jazz tenor-saxophonist from Chicago whose speed, control, and harmonic acuity made him one of the most talented musicians of his generation, and who abandoned his hopes for an American career when he moved to Europe in 1963, died Friday at his home in Availles-Limouzine, a village in France. He was 80 and had lived in Availles-Limouzine for 24 years.
His death was announced to Agence France-Presse by his wife, who did not give a cause. He played his last concert Monday in Hyères.
His height — around five feet five — earned him the nickname “The Little Giant”; his speed in bebop improvising marked him as “The Fastest Gun in the West”; a group he led with Eddie Lockjaw Davis was informally called the “tough tenor” band, a designation that was eventually applied to a whole school of hard bop tenor players.”
- Obituary By Ben Ratliff, published in the July 26, 2008 New York Times
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles welcomes back to these pages the writing of Don DeMichael with a piece on Johnny Griffin, a powerhouse tenor saxophonist whose fierce sound and finger-bustin’ technique were characteristic of his playing throughout a career that spanned six decades and two continents.
“So much controversy has been stirred up by "Third Stream" music, the back-to-the-land movement, the need for new forms in jazz composition, the importance of Mainstream jazz, the value of Traditional jazz, and
God-knows-what-else, that it's easy to lose sight of jazzmen who aren't trying to mold the shape of things to come — men who don't particularly care where jazz is heading or where it's been, musicians whose greatest desire is simply to play their instruments.
It's ironic that, throughout the history of jazz, such men have had the greatest impact on the direction of jazz and have been the ones to add to the legends and traditions of the music. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Lester Young were probably more concerned with what they were going to play when they were on stand than with how they might alter the course of jazz. It has been the blowers — and Louis, Bird, and Pres were at heart blowers—who have shown the way. Jazz evolves every night; there's no such thing as evolution by planned crusade.
All of which brings us to little Johnny Griffin, a blower of the first stripe. He is a man concerned with living and playing in the present.
The diminutive tenor man, currently co-leading a group with Eddie (Lockjaw) Davis, said recently, "Jazz is self-expression. It's not what I recorded last year or what I played last night, but how I feel tonight that's important. I feel differently tonight than I did yesterday. If I feel bad, I'll play bad. But if I feel good, there'll be some feeling of hilarity in my playing."
Griffin believes in the inspiration of the moment, in giving in to circumstances. "Jazz to me is not arrangements," he said. "That's why I like to blow. I don't even want to know what I'm going to play. The individual solo, that's jazz. To say something...
"I'm what you might call a nervous person when I'm playing. I like to play fast. I get excited, and I have to sort of control myself, restrain myself. But when the rhythm section gets cooking, I want to explode. I like to play with
fire, and I like strong bassists and drummers. I've played with such fiery rhythm sections with drummers like Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, and Max Roach that there's little you can miss as far as fire is concerned.
"Some guys say, Why don't you cool it the first set — take it easy?' And I try for the first tune or so. But when I get into the music, I don't have anything to do with it. I can't help myself. Before you know it, things are wailing."
Griffin's career includes a two-year stay with Lionel Hampton. He joined Hamp a few days after graduating from high school in 1945. He tells amusing tales of the Hampton band's adventures. One concerns a theater engagement in New York City.
The theater management insisted on a tight time schedule — 53 minutes were
allotted the show, no more, no less. Griffin says Hampton would get carried away playing Flying Home, and many times during the engagement, as the elevated stage descended with the band blasting away, Hampton would be seen still marching through the audience with a blowing tenor man.
After leaving the Hampton band in 1947, Griffin spent 10 years with a variety of groups, including those of Joe Morris and Arnett Cobb, and an early edition of the Jazz Messengers. In 1958, he worked four months with Thelonious Monk, a period he says was "a wonderful experience."
"I don't think Monk changed me, though — not my way of playing," he said. "I've known Monk a long time. I worked with him in Chicago at the Beehive in '54 or '55. As strange as he may seem to the public, Monk is a well-read person. And if you can get close to him, he can carry on a very intelligent conversation.
"He's such a strong person when he's playing his own music. You have to modify your playing with him, especially when he's comping. You have to go Monk's way. Sometimes I'd ask him what change he had played on some tune. He'd tell me, but then he'd say, "But that's only relative. You've got to hear it.'"
The 32-year-old tenor man's respect for "strong" players is mirrored in his own muscular playing. But he feels that he is what he is today because he avoided listening too much to "strong" jazzmen.
"When Bird was alive, I wouldn't go near him too much," he said. "The same thing goes for Don Byas and Dexter Gordon. They were very strong. I felt it wouldn't do my playing any good. I might start playing like them.
"Yet everything I play comes from others. Everything I've ever heard comes out in what I play. You shouldn't get stuck on any one man, but listen to them all, then draw on them according to how you feel at any one time. I don't want anyone to influence me overly. It would suppress what I have to express. I wouldn't be giving myself to myself."
Even though he avoided overexposure to "strong" players, there were others whom Griffin listened to — Fats Navarro, Dizzy Gillespie ("always"), Elmo Hope, Wardell Gray, Sonny Stitt, Ben Webster ("the ferociousness of Ben"), Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young ("He didn't play with fire, but he was so relaxed . . . the way he'd bend notes ... he just swung").
But even with his studied avoidance of strong players and the consequent emergence of his own style, Griffin is not content with his playing. "Somebody can tape something I play one night, and I can listen to it the next night and think it's okay. But later, I'll pick it to pieces. I've never been satisfied with anything I've done.
"I'm searching for something, and I don't have a clear idea what I'm looking for. The more I learn, the more there is that I know I don't know.”
Maturity comes when you realize your limitations as well as your strengths. Johnny Griffin today is a mature person. His search for a nebulous "something" could conceivably end with a large group of his own. His latest Riverside record, The Big Soul Band, and his plans for more big band recordings would indicate this. Whatever his "something" turns out to be, it will be vital, fiery music, firmly rooted in the present.
January 5, 1961