Johnny Griffin: Powerhouse tenor saxophonist who played with Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Art Blakey

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The Independent Online

Although born and bred in Chicago, the diminutive powerhouse tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin enjoyed his greatest success in Europe. He lived for 24 years in a beautiful château at Availles-Limouzine, a village near Poitiers in western France. As Mike Hennessey points out in his 2008 biography Little Giant: the story of Johnny Griffin, you can count the number of master saxophonists from the Midwest who have ended up in such accommodation on one finger.

Griffin could play fast and he could play long and he kept busy doing it up until the last day of his life, when he due to play that evening in the Loire village of Saint-Georges-sur-Cher as part of a tour with the American organist Rhoda Scott. "I got so excited when I played and I still do," he said, "I want to eat up the music like a child eating candy".

With a supremely fast articulation, Griffin was generally regarded as the fastest saxophonist of them all. But he tired of the constant attention to his speed. "I'm a ballad player, too," he said. "I can play slow as Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster could". And his slow numbers showed a voluptuous and generous imagination.

At five feet five inches he was hardly a giant physically, but musically he towered over most of the tenor saxists of the day when he arrived on the world scene in 1957. He seemed to pop out of nowhere, his style fully formed, and immediately swept to the top.

A remarkable musician from the start, Griffin first studied piano and Hawaiian guitar before moving on to clarinet, oboe and alto saxophone. He was taught, at Chicago's DuSable High School, by the school's band instructor Captain Walter Dyett, who also taught Nat "King" Cole and Dinah Washington and other budding jazz stars.

Three days after graduating, Griffin joined Lionel Hampton's band as an alto player, but switched to tenor saxophone, an instrument he had always preferred to any other, when Hampton's wife told him to switch horns to replace an absent tenor player. He stayed with Hampton, latterly playing raucous tenor features, from July 1945 until June 1947. During the same period, displaying an early affinity with piano players, he played regularly with Bud Powell, Elmo Hope and Thelonious Monk for practice.

Griffin was called into the army to serve from 1951 to 1953 and was pulled out from the group with which he was drafted because a military band in Hawaii needed an oboe player. He was sent to Hawaii for four years whilst the rest of the group was sent to Korea, where most of them were killed.

On his discharge Griffin returned to play in Chicago for several years before he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in March 1957. Although he was only with Blakey until the following October, it was an album that the Messengers recorded with Thelonious Monk as guest pianist that brought Griffin international attention.

Leaving Blakey, Griffin joined Monk's quartet, and proved himself skilled at negotiating and elaborating the quirky composer's themes. "I loved Thelonious Monk," he said.

Genius barring none. He would suffer no fools, and the way he carried himself, people would look at him and be afraid to speak to him. And that expression on his face, he looked like Jomo Kenyatta of the Mau Maus in Kenya. But behind the mask he was real humorous and always aware of everything. The way he composed, the logic of his compositions, immensely influenced me.

In April 1957, while still with Art Blakey, Griffin was on the way to one of his many recording sessions, this time at Blue Note, with another tenor sax Hank Mobley. On the way they met a third tenor player, John Coltrane, and Griffin invited him to join them. The result was A Blowin' Session, a classic of hard bop, powered by Blakey on drums.

In 1960 Griffin joined another of the more vigorous tenor players, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis to form a two-tenor quintet. They worked the limited formula with great success for two years. By now his recordings proliferated. "I was recording two or three times a week, sometimes," he said. "Jazz doesn't have the profile now that it had then. You heard it on the radio all the time. It was popular music."

One of his recordings, made in 1960 for Riverside Records, was The Big Soul Band. This teamed him with 14 contemporaries, including Clark Terry and Norman Simmons, and featured Griffin's muscular tenor improvisations on some old spirituals, notably "Wade in the Water", which became a long-lasting hit. On one of his annual return visits to Chicago in 2000 the Big Soul Band was reformed to play a concert in the Chicago Symphony Center.

After touring in Europe in early 1963 he decided to settle there and, beset by tax and family problems in the States, he settled first in Paris. He played for several years at the city's Blue Note, often with his fellow expatriates Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke and, most often, the drummer Art Taylor. From 1967 to 1969 he was the principal soloist in the pan-European Clarke-Boland Big Band.

A staunch practitioner of bebop, Griffin abhorred the avant-garde fashion of that period. "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 retrenched from his explosive high-speed playing and developed his ballad work.

Griffin moved to Bergambacht in Holland in 1973, living there until 1980 when he returned to France to live in Poitiers. "The weather ran me out of the Netherlands," he said. "There'd be months sometimes when you'd never see the sun. All that weather coming off the North Sea – everybody turning grey."

He was an early user of a computer in composing and his career was recharged when he signed with the Antilles label and produced The Cat (1991). The climax of his later recording career was a remarkable duo album with the Algerian piano virtuoso Martial Solal, In and Out. Although the two men had admired each other since Griffin had first arrived in France, they hadn't really worked together until this album was made in July 1999. As in the earlier days with Monk, Solal's abstruse playing was no barrier to the Little Giant, and the two instrumentalists meshed together perfectly.

Until his health failed in later years, Griffin continued to work in America where he was never short of jobs. After revisiting Chicago he'd usually end each trip with a week at the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York.

Earlier this summer he visited London for the launch of his biography and to celebrate his 80th birthday at Ronnie Scott's. He played two nights at the club before returning to his château and the vegetable garden that he had tended lovingly for many years.

Steve Voce

John Arnold Griffin, tenor saxophonist: born Chicago 24 April 1928; twice married (one son, three daughters) died Availles-Limouzine, France 25 July 2008.