Giants on earth

Johnny Griffin, tenor saxophonist, b. Chicago 4-24-28, d. at his home in the French countryside,  7–27-08 — such bare facts don’t say much about the music this man could wring from his instrument, back when jazz giants entertained the earth. From his pro emergence at age 15 in 1945 well past the mid ’60s, when Griffin relocated to Europe due to tensions in the U.S. and civilization abroad — he stood fast and tall for vigor and rigor, sophisticated lyricism and humor, impassioned drive, true blue grit, the spirit of collaborataion  — attributes audiences shouldn’t take for granted.

They called him the Little Giant — from my lofty 5′ 7″ I looked down on him a couple irrelevant inches but up to him in all the ways that matter, between listener and musician. Griffin had a huge, fast, craggy and crafty style, produced by nimble fingers, enormous reserves of breath, swaggering phraseology and overall control. He was a consumate professional, that was obvious when I heard him performing at Joe Segal’s Jazz Showcase during the later ’60, during one of his annual return visits to his hometown (where big, bad saxophonists (cf native sons and local favorites Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Illinois Jacquet, Jimmy Forrest,  Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, etc. had long ruled). 

Chicago’s legendary Du Sable High School bandleader Capt. Walter Dyett helped instill Griffin with discipline, bandleaders he worked with while a teenager such as bluesman T-Bone Walker and rhythm-driven Lionel Hampton may have whetted his taste for excitement, and he leapt to  the challenges proposed by Thelonious Monk’s compositions or Art Blakey’s energies, just as he gladly balanced the romanticism of Dexter Gordon or gruffness of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, two among many of his close musical partners. Griffin gained in subtlety, imagination and expressivity over the course of his 60 year career. Surveying his later cds after hearing of his demise, Close Your Eyes, duets with pianist Horace Parlan, rose to the top among his most transparent and affecting. 

The titans of the modern jazz mainstream may from our remove today seem like dinosaurs — but they were the rugged front line expressionists of their days, when bold signature sounds, command of codified chord progressions and comfort level with not-always-friendly competition were skills upon which decades-long careers were based. Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Don Byas gave this art wing — Lester Young was their counterpoint — Griffin one of its mature masters. Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane may have taken such saxophonics to its apogee, then exploded them — jazz-jazz such as they went beyond had its proscriptions,  which Griffin preferred to work within. Listen to his music to hear how artists on the cusp of change but shy of going over it can discover, probe and create myriad new possibilities, respecting conventions as matters of agreeable idiom rather than confining limits.
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  1. says

    Having a 60 year career is something to aim for.
    Other than being impressive in all the other ways was and still is impressive in- the fact that he had a 60 year career is stunning to me.
    HM: Jazz, straightahead and jazz-beyond-jazz varieties alike, seems to allow for the lengthy creative career — thinking of Von Freeman, Roy Haynes, Hank Jones, Paul Motian and Marian McPartland, among others. Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman are still undimmed creatively and in enviable physical condition if their performances are proof. Of course Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan are pretty able in their 60s, after performing for 40 years, and Elliiot Carter at 100, too, though he doesn’t perform. Maybe it’s that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and most jazz musicians have been exposed to a lot of toxic experience during their long careers, so if they’ve learned how to cope. . .

  2. says

    True – That is an angle I didn’t consider – What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger on one hand and on the other hand living a life of creativity being true to your soul and original self, might also promote longevity.
    I think that very few of us are big enough to really be true to ourself so as to reap this benefit regardless of the toxic experiences…
    HM: It would be comforting to believe that being true to one’s self promotes longevity. I think it can’t hurt one’s longevity on its own, but can lead one to make decisions that don’t always result in financial security, and financial insecurity can sometimes reduce longevity. Being true to one’s self may best be understood as a good thing in and of itself, it’s own reward. Lucky for Johnny Griffin, his dedication to his art was personally fulfilling and earned him a comfortable lifestyle, too.