Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin recently entered his eighty-first year, still living and playing at full–or nearly full–speed. Martin Gayford today observed Griffin’s longevity and vigor in a piece in the British newspaper the Telegraph. Here’s an excerpt:
He was described by Richard Cook in his Jazz Encyclopaedia as “the fastest tenorman of them all”. He has slowed down a little, but not that much. “I got so excited when I played and I still do,” he has said. “I want to eat up the music like a child eating candy.”
There was always, however, more to Griffin’s style than simply speed. Whatever you are playing, he once advised a fellow musician, you should always play the blues – meaning, always play with feeling. He has a richness of sound that is characteristic of the great jazz tenor saxophone tradition.
To read all of Gayford’s article, go here. Griffin mentions to Gayford the importance in his early New York days of being around three pianists, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Elmo Hope. When I interviewed him for JazzTimes in 1995, he expanded on his experience with them in what he called “my conservatory of music.”
“These guys were like triplets,” Griffin says. “They loved each other and they were always at one another’s houses. So much respect. So much music. For some strange reason, they adopted me, and that’s how I got my education. For instance, we’d all go to Monk’s when he was rehearsing his band with Ernie Henry and the cats from Brooklyn. I heard so much music, it stayed with me forever. They didn’t give me any instruction, they just played.
“I’d hear something Monk played on, say, ‘Coming On The Hudson,’ and I’d say, ‘Wait a minute, hold it, T. What is that?’ And he’d say, ‘Oh, that’s a D-something cluster. But it’s only relative. Everything is relative.’ Later on, I realized what that meant. The chord is literal, but it’s also something that you live. Music can be mathematics, but it’s also the relationship between things. It’s life.”
Griffin still lives in the French countryside near Vienne in south central France. His 198-year-old stone house is called Chateau Bellevue, “beautiful view.” Here’s a bit more from the JazzTimes piece.
Inside, through the blue-gray of darkening air the tenor saxophonist is gazing toward the village across the Vienne River, three quarters of a mile down the hill. Behind the town is the rising bul of the Massif Central. A center of the ceramics industry, this are of dry hills is also know for its livestock. One of the walls of Griffin’s courtyard is the back of a neighbor’s cattle barn.
To reach gigs, Griffin drives an hour to the train station at Angoulème, Limoges or Poitiers, takes a high-speed train 150 miles northeast to Paris and flies from Orly airport to Los Angeles, Tokyo, Chicago, New York, Paris or wherever there is a demand for world-class tenor playing.
The June, 1995, article is not archived on the JazzTimes web site. Your library may have it. If you are unfamiliar with Griffin, I suggest not wasting a moment to seek him out. For a starter CD, you could do little better than this 1957 album with Sonny Clark, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; and Kenny Dennis, drums.
For a video sample of Griffin at work with Gérard Badini’s big band, click here. YouTube has several other clips of Griffin playing in a variety of settings.