Johnny Griffin, 80; Sax Player Known for Hard, Fast Sound

By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008

Johnny Griffin, 80, who was among the finest jazz tenor saxophonists to develop after World War II and whose robust style -- along with his modest height -- earned him the title the "Little Giant," died July 25 at his home in Availles-Limouzine, France, a village about 150 miles southwest of Paris. No cause of death was reported.

The Chicago-born Griffin emerged as a top-flight player in the 1950s, when he performed with saxophonist John Coltrane, pianist Thelonious Monk's quartet and drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

Mr. Griffin was a masterful improviser in hard bop, a swaggering, blues-inflected branch of swing music played at breakneck speed.

New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson once wrote of Mr. Griffin's skill that he "plays the tenor saxophone with long, light, flowing lines that build to tremendously forceful passages, which despite their fierce energy and the power of his attack, always remain completely controlled and smoothly executed."

Mr. Griffin's signature became a "tough" sound rendered at lightning pace, which was captured on a legendary 1957 hard-bop album that featured him trading quicksilver solos with saxophonists Coltrane and Hank Mobley, " A Blowin' Session."

Mr. Griffin, dubbed "Jonathan Swift" and "the fastest gun in the West," was also grounded in his playing by a keen sense of melody and harmony. But those hallmarks flew out of vogue during the free-form jazz craze of the 1960s.

That development and a variety of family and tax problems led him to an expatriate lifestyle. He continued a vibrant career in Paris, where he had moved in 1963, and later the Netherlands and Availles-Limouzine.

John Arnold Griffin III was born April 24, 1928. He said he became serious about music after his junior high school threw a graduating party that featured trumpeter King Kolax and saxophonist Gene Ammons.

"And that's when I said, 'That's it!' " he said years later. "Just like that, tunnel vision ever since."

At DuSable High School in Chicago's South Side, he came under the tutelage of legendary music instructor Walter Dyett, who had taught Ammons as well as pianist-singer Nat King Cole.

Mr. Griffin recalled Dyett laughing when the young student, then 70 pounds and barely scraping 5 feet tall, pleaded with Dyett to teach him the tenor saxophone so he could mimic the bold-sounding Ammons.

Mr. Griffin, who at full growth stood 5-foot-6, developed early on a comfort with sophisticated jazz and rhythm and blues. While in high school, he became good enough to play saxophone with blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, and he was recruited to Lionel Hampton's big band within days of graduating in 1945.

He later spent three years with trumpeter Joe Morris's rhythm and blues group touring the East Coast, while participating in high-octane jam sessions featuring Monk and pianist Bud Powell.

In the early 1950s, he played with an Army band in Hawaii and settled in Chicago after his discharge. He made several early records as a leader, including " Johnny Griffin" (1956).

After working with the Jazz Messengers in 1957, he played a four-month gig the next year with Monk's quartet, which he found exhilarating but ultimately frustrating.

"I mean, trying to express yourself, because his music, with him comping [accompanying], is so overwhelming, like it's almost like you're trying to break out of a room made of marshmallows," Mr. Griffin told interviewer Ben Sidran. "Any deviation, one note off, and you sound like you're playing another tune, and you're not paying attention to what's going on."

In the early 1960s, he led a quintet with saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, with whom he was often featured in dueling sax solos. Later that decade, he became principal soloist in the Clarke-Boland Big Band, one of Europe's leading all-star jazz groups of that period. Thereafter, Mr. Griffin thrived on the international concert circuit. Based in Availles-Limouzine for the past 18 years, he had also continued to tour, record and lead small groups whose members have included pianist Ronnie Mathews, drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Ray Drummond.

"I enjoy life, man," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987 during one of his occasional visits to play in the United States. "I feel fortunate that I'm usually around nice, positive-thinking people. I can't imagine being around a bunch of grumpy cats, fussin' and fightin'.

"My band -- we're all friends, like a big family up there on stage, havin' fun," he said. "I think that lightens the burden of some of the situations that you find [in life] and helps people who listen in some way."

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