Johnny Griffin, a swaggering tenor saxophonist with eel-like agility whose deep r&b roots remained with him during his bebop years in the late 1940s and hard bop period in the 1950s and beyond, died on Friday in France. He was 80.
From his earliest recordings, Griffin was a triple threat. In addition to being a lightning-quick sight-reader, Griffin added a big, strong sound to every sax section he was in. And his muscular solos could always be counted on to amaze and entertain.
Griffin first recorded at age 17 with Lionel Hampton's band in
1945. But when trumpeter Joe Morris left Hampton in 1946 to start his
own r&b band, Griffin followed. For the next three years, Griffin built a
reputation as Morris' tough-tenor soloist. Known as "The Little Giant,"
Griffin stood five-foot, five-inches tall, but his slight height only
made him more assertive as a player.
Like many bands of the period, Joe Morris chose to fuse swing and blues rather than play straight-up bebop. As bop grew more complex in the late 1940s, arrangers who could score the new jazz for big bands dwindled, forcing many bands into r&b. With jazz focused on instrumental prowess and new musical concepts, the simplicity of jump boogie grew in popularity as a younger audience sought music they could dance to.
In 1956, with the advent of the 12-inch LP, Griffin, 28, recorded Introducing Johnny Griffin for Blue Note, his first pure jazz album. It showcased a range of styles, from blues and ballads to cookers like Cherokee, which demonstrated Griffin's ability to play blazingly fast and produce a steady stream of original ideas. Recording dates with Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley and many others followed.
In 1958, Griffin joined Thelonious Monk [pictured] for an extended stay at New York's Five Spot club and recorded two Riverside albums. These albums remain Griffin's most significant and penetrating recordings. The tenor saxophonist's blues attack and musical intellect were perfectly suited to Monk's percussive style, with Griffin adding just enough velvety yin to Monk's dissonant yang.
Between 1960 and 1962, Griffin recorded for Riverside Records, where he was paired with tenor titan Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis [pictured]. But where Davis' style tended to dwell on a taut blowing technique and ferocious speed, Griffin could match both but also develop nuanced ideas that went beyond the tricks of 1940s tenor cutting sessions.
Griffin moved to Europe in 1963 and recorded extensively with the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band as well as with a range of European musicians and American expatriates, returning to the U.S. periodically over the years to visit family and perform.
JazzWax tracks: Here are my favorite Griffin tracks and albums. All are available as downloads at iTunes or Amazon, unless otherwise noted:
Slide, Hamp, Slide—Lionel Hampton (1945). This baseball-themed swing number was Griffin's very first recording. The personnel included Joe Morris, Wendell Culley, Dave Page, Jimmy Nottingham and Lammar Wright, Jr. (trumpets), Jimmy Wormick, Mitchell "Booty" Wood, Andrew Penn and Al Hayse (trombones), Bobby Plater and Ben Kynard (alto saxes), Arnett Cobb and Griffin (tenor saxes), Charlie Fowlkes (baritone sax), Milt Buckner (piano), Billy Mackel (guitar), Charlie Harris and Ted Sinclair (bass), George Jenkins (drums) and Hampton (vibes).
Pinetop's Boogie Woogie—Lionel Hampton (1946). Yes,
Griffin recorded with Bing Crosby. This track and Sunny Side of the Street
featured Der Bingle on vocals. This single finds Crosby offering
"soulful" instructions to an imaginary Jitterbug line dance. To my ear, the track's concept
was likely the inspiration for Madison Time, recorded by Ray Bryant in 1960. Both tracks are at iTunes.
Wilma's Idea—Joe Morris (1947). Likely written by band pianist Wilmus Reeves, this is a pure bop arrangement. Griffin's playing and ideas are strong and forceful, with shades of Sonny Stitt. Unfortunately, the track isn't available as a download. It can be found on the CD pictured, which is available at Amazon.
Blu-Binksy—A.K. Salim (1957). This track is on arranger A.K. Salim's fabulous Pretty for the People album. Not only is Salim's writing here beautiful, but the musicians on this little-known date say it all: Kenny Dorham (trumpet), Buster Cooper (trombone), Griffin (tenor sax), Pepper Adams (baritone sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Max Roach (drums), Chino Pozo (Chano's cousin, conga) and A.K. Salim (conductor, arranger and composer).
The Congregation—Johnny Griffin (1957). This entire Blue Note recording is terrific and features Griffin with Sonny Clark (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Kenny Dennis (drums). In particular, Latin Quarter is a clever Latinized version of Tangerine with a bop spin, showing off Griffin's medium-tempo chops. And dig that rundown at the end! The same goes for I'm Glad There Is You. If you don't own this album, download the whole thing. You won't be disappointed. It's Griffin at his best.
Thelonious in Action and Misterioso—Thelonious Monk (1958). Both of these Riverside albums recorded at the Five Spot are a must. In addition to Griffin and Monk, Ahmed Abdul-Malik is on bass and Roy Haynes is on drums. This was Monk's greatest quartet, in my estimation, and Griffin's brightest moments as a sideman. His tone and idea choices are on par with Monk's, which makes for some exciting listening.
Save Your Love for Me—Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis (1960). This track is off their Tough Tenors album for Riverside, and it swings the whole way through. The entire album is strong, with smoky rich ballads and all-out blowing duets.
The Magic Touch—Tadd Dameron (1962). There's no way to pick a favorite track off this beauty. The entire album is a classic, and it features Griffin throughout. The personnel is Joe Wilder, Clark Terry and Ernie Royal (trumpets), Jimmy Cleveland and Britt Woodman (trombones), Julius Watkins (French horn), Leo Wright and Jerry Dodgion (alto saxes and flutes), Jerome Richardson (tenor sax and flute), Griffin (tenor sax), Tate Houston (baritone sax), Bill Evans (piano), George Duvivier (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums) and Tadd Dameron (arranger and leader).
Saxology—Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band (1968). This track is off an album called More: Plays Famous Themes From Great Motion Pictures. The tune appears to be modeled after Four Brothers, and the swinger tears out of the gate and doesn't stop. Griff's solo is the second one. And dig the drumming by Kenny Clarke and Kenny Clare (the band used two drummers).
JazzWax video clip: Griffin and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis were among the toughest tenor duos—not just for their powerful sound but also their endless stream of brilliant blues ideas. In the 1980s they were captured live on For Ge-Ge. Part 1 is here. and Part 2 is here. Want speed? Here's Griff blowing on a blues. Want a big band? Here's Griff with the sax section of the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band. And here's Part 1 of a European documentary on the band (there are five parts). By the way, that's Griff coming through the airport doors at 2:20 into Part 1 [pictured]. Dig that walk!