[Dixielandjazz] Jonnny Griffin Obit:

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sat Jul 26 06:33:53 PDT 2008

He wasn't an OKOM player, but a giant never-the-less. The late Charlie  
Hooks, (clarinetist from Chicago, former list mate and friend) and I  
used to discuss Griffin off list. Both of us knew and admired Griffin,  
his ability, and his dedication to the genre of music he loved.
I saw him many times with Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot in NYC,  
circa late 1950s, and was amazed at his technical and melodic output.
Like Bechet, he eventually (1980's) settled down in France, performing  
right up until the time of his passing.
Steve Barbone


July 26, 2008 - NY TIMES - by Ben Ratliff
Johnny Griffin, 80, Jazz Saxophonist, Dies

Johnny Griffin, a tenor saxophonist from Chicago whose speed, control  
and harmonic acuity made him one of the most talented American jazz  
musicians of his generation yet who spent most of his career in  
Europe, died Friday at his home in Availles-Limouzine, a village in  
France. He was 80 and had lived there for 24 years.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Miriam, who did not give a cause.  
He played his last concert on Monday in Hyères, France.

Mr. Griffin’s modest height 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 his fellow saxophonist 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. And in  
general, Mr. Griffin suffered from categorization.

In the early 1960s, embittered by the critical acceptance of free  
jazz, he stayed true to his identity as a bebopper. Feeling that the  
American marketplace had no use for him (at a time when he was also  
having marital and tax troubles), he left for Europe, where he became  
a celebrated jazz elder.

“It’s not like I’m looking to prove anything anymore,” he said in a  
1993 interview. “At this age, what can I prove? I’m concentrating more  
on the beauty in the music, the humanity.”

Indeed, Mr. Griffin’s work in the 1990s, with an American quartet that  
stayed constant whenever he revisited his home country to perform or  
record, had a new sound, mellower and sweeter than in his younger days.

Johnny Griffin was born in Chicago on April 24, 1928, and grew up on  
the South Side. He attended DuSable High School, where he was taught  
by the famed high school band instructor Capt. Walter Dyett, whose  
other students included the singers Nat (King) Cole and Dinah  
Washington and the saxophonists Gene Ammons and Von Freeman.

Mr. Griffin’s career started in a hurry: at age 12, attending his  
grammar school graduation dance at the Parkway Ballroom in Chicago, he  
saw Ammons play in King Kolax’s big band and decided what his  
instrument would be. By 14 he was playing alto saxophone in a variety  
of situations, including a group called the Baby Band with  
schoolmates, and occasionally with the blues guitarist and singer T- 
Bone Walker. At 18, three days after his high school graduation, Mr.  
Griffin left Chicago to join Lionel Hampton’s big band, where he  
switched from alto to tenor. From then until 1951 he was based in New  
York City but mostly on the road.

By 1947 he was touring with the rhythm-and-blues band of the trumpeter  
Joe Morris, a fellow Chicagoan, with whom he made the first recordings  
for the Atlantic label. He entered the United States Army in 1951;  
stationed in Hawaii, he played in an Army band.

Mr. Griffin was of an impressionable age when Charlie Parker and Dizzy  
Gillespie became forces in jazz. He heard them both with Billy  
Eckstine’s band in 1945 and, having first internalized the more  
balladlike saxophone sound earlier popularized by Johnny Hodges and  
Ben Webster, became entranced by the lightning-fast phrasing of bebop,  
as the new music of Parker and Gillespie was known. In general his  
style remained brisk but relaxed, his bebop playing salted with blues  

Beyond the 1960s his skill and his musical eccentricity continued to  
deepen, and in later years he could play odd, asymmetrical phrases,  
bulging with blues honking and then tapering off into state-of-the-art  
bebop, filled with passing chords.

In the late 1940s he befriended the pianists Elmo Hope, Bud Powell and  
Thelonious Monk; he called these friendships his “postgraduate  
education.” After his Army service he went back to Chicago, where he  
worked with Monk for the first time, a job that altered his career. He  
became interested in Monk’s brightly melodic style of composition, and  
he ended up as a regular member of Monk’s quartet in New York in 1958.  
In 1967 he toured Europe with a Monk octet.

Mr. Griffin joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for a short stint in  
1957. The following year he began recording a series of albums as a  
leader for the Riverside label. On “Way Out!,” “The Little Giant” and  
other Riverside albums, his rampaging energy got its moment in the sun  
on tunes like “Cherokee,” famous vehicles for testing a musician’s  

A few years later he hooked up with Davis, a more blues-oriented tenor  
saxophonist, with whom he made a series of records that act as  
barometers of taste: listeners tend to find them either thrilling or  
filled with too many notes. The Griffin-Davis combination was a  
popular one, and the two men would sporadically reunite through the  
’70s and ’80s.

Mr. Griffin left the United States in 1963, settling in Paris and  
recording mostly for European labels — sometimes with other American  
expatriates, like the drummer Kenny Clarke, and sometimes with  
European rhythm sections. In 1973 he moved to Bergambacht, the  
Netherlands. He moved to the Côte d’Azur with his second wife, Miriam,  
in 1980, and then in 1984 to Availles-Limouzine, near Poitiers in  
midwestern France, where he lived thereafter.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Griffin’s survivors include four  
children: his daughters Jo-Onna and Ingrid and a son, John Arnold  
Griffin, all of the New York City area, and another daughter, Cynthia  
Griffin of Bordeaux, France.

Mr. Griffin stayed true to the small-group bebop ideal with his  
American quartet, including the pianist Michael Weiss and the drummer  
Kenny Washington. The record he made with this group for the Antilles  
label in 1991, “The Cat,” was received warmly as a comeback.

Every April for many years, Mr. Griffin returned to Chicago to visit  
family and play during his birthday week at the Jazz Showcase. During  
those visits he usually also spent a week at the Village Vanguard in  
New York, before returning home to his quiet house in the country.

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