Johnny Griffin RIP

Johnny Griffin, a tenor saxophonist whose technical command set standards for his instrument and who refused to compromise his art, died today at his home in the village of Mauprevoir in France. From Ben Ratliff’s obituary of Griffin in today’s New York Times:

Griffin 2.jpgHis 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.

And in general, Mr. Griffin suffered from categorization. In the early 1960s, he became embittered by the acceptance of free jazz; he stayed true to his identity as a bebopper. When he felt the American jazz marketplace had no use for him (at a time he was also having marital and tax troubles), he left for Holland.

At that point America lost one of its best musicians, even if his style fell out of sync with the times.

When the man admired as the Little Giant celebrated his eightieth birthday in May, Rifftides posted this retrospective. It includes a CD recommendation and a link to video of Griffin in action.

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  1. says

    A very sad notice. Johnny was a stupendous player full of joy and power.
    I love specially “A blowin´session” with Coltrane and Mobley, the live recordings in the Monk´s big band, “The return of the Griffin”, a duo with Martial Solal “In and Out”, and of course a lot more.
    I hope that he would play up there a couple of blues with John and Hank again.

  2. Michael of New York Nu YORK says

    Such a gentle kind soul, as well. I worked on some
    of his record covers for Riverside Records
    and Jazzland, meeting him on set at NYC’s
    210 Fifth Avenue, aka The Donald Silverstein
    Studio, where so many covers were shot that
    won design awards for Riverside.
    I had the pleasure of making the prints that
    the original Birdland used for the 1961
    Eddie Lockjaw/Johhny Griffin tough tenor
    battles (what an awful name, “battles,” for two
    great musicians performing). Wow. Griffin’s
    music will be missed in person but will live on
    in his recordings.

  3. Michael Martone says

    I just had a flash of another memory on the shooting of the cover of “Tough Tenor Favorites” in 1961. I was told to get a pint of milk for Eddie Lockjaw Davis. I thought he was going to drink the milk. However, he mixed the milk in a glass at the studio with an equal dose of scotch to soak his saxophone reeds before playing for our record cover photography requirements with Maestro Griffin.

  4. david gedalecia says

    Two Monk tunes, “Coming on the Hudson” and “Light Blue” were recorded on “Thelonious in Action” for the Five Spot sessions in 1958, with Johnny Griffin playing tenor. These may be the only recordings of these two great pieces, and it is clear from the restrained and moving solos that Griffin takes on them, which are quite a contrast with the tour de force solos he takes on tunes like “Blue Monk” and “Evidence,” that he had a profound understanding of the subtleties in Monk’s music.