I was so fortunate to hear Johnny Griffin play live a few times, mostly in the nineties. In fact, I think (that along with Phil Woods) he was one of the first saxophonists I saw live and was an early hero, and a big reason I switched from the alto to the tenor when I was a kid. Affectionately called The Little Giant due to his small physical stature, he left an impression that I'll never forget. He could blaze at some of the fastest tempos and play a beautiful ballad, evoking Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster with one of the biggest tenor sounds on the planet. He recorded until the end, but I'm a big fan of some earlier recordings of his. Thelonious Monk's Misterioso has some of the most fierce and distinctive tenor playing (and some great Roy Haynes too) ever recorded. He also led a record date for Blue Note called A Blowing Session featuring John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, and Hank Mobley in the front line and absolutely blazes through The Way You Look Tonight.
Even though he rarely played in the U.S. after moving to Europe in the 1960's, his presence on the jazz scene will definitely be missed. Here's Ben Ratliff's obituary from the NY Times:
Johnny Griffin, a jazz tenor-saxophonist from Chicago whose speed, control, and harmonic acuity made him one of the most talented musicians of his generation, and who abandoned his hopes for an American career when he moved to Europe in 1963, died Friday at his home in Availles-Limouzine, a village in France. He was 80 and had lived in Availles-Limouzine for 24 years.
His death was announced to Agence France-Presse by his wife, who did not give a cause. He played his last concert Monday in Hyères.
His 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.
“It’s not like I’m looking to prove anything any more,” he said in a 1993 interview. “At this age, what can I prove? I’m concentrating more on the beauty in the music, the humanity.”
Indeed his work in the 1990s, with an American quartet that stayed constant whenever he revisited his home country to perform or record, had a new sound, mellower and sweeter than in his younger days.
Mr. Griffin grew up on the South Side of Chicago and attended DuSable High School, where he was taught by the high school band instructor Capt. Walter Dyett, who also taught the singers Nat (King) Cole and Dinah Washington and the saxophonists Gene Ammons and Von Freeman.
Mr. Griffin’s career started in a hurry: At the age of 12, attending his grammar school graduation dance at the Parkway ballroom, he saw Ammons play in King Kolax’s big band and decided what his instrument would be. By 14, he was playing alto saxophone in a variety of situations, including a group called the Baby Band with schoolmates, and occasionally with the guitarist T-Bone Walker.
At 18, three days after his high school graduation, Mr. Griffin left Chicago to join Lionel Hampton’s big band, switching to tenor saxophone. From then until 1951, he was mostly on the road, though based in New York City. By 1947 he was touring with Joe Morris, a fellow Chicagoan who ran a rhythm-and-blues band, and with Morris he made his first recordings for the Atlantic record label. He entered the army in 1951, was stationed in Hawaii, and played in an army band.
Mr. Griffin was of an impressionable age when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie became a force in jazz. He heard both with the Billy Eckstine band in 1945; having first internalized the more ballad-like saxophone sound earlier popularized by Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, he was now entranced by the lightning-fast phrasing of the new music, bebop. In general, his style remained brisk but relaxed, his bebop playing salted with blues tonality.
Beyond the 1960s, his skill and his musical eccentricity continued to deepen, and in later years he could play odd, asymmetrical phrases, bulging with blues honking and then tapering off into state-of-the-art bebop, filled with passing chords.
Starting in the late 1940s, he befriended the pianists Elmo Hope, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and he called these friendships his “postgraduate education.” After his army service, he went back to Chicago and started playing with Monk, a move that altered his career. He became interested in Monk’s brightly melodic style of composition, and he ended up as a regular member of Monk’s quartet back in New York in the late ‘50s; later, in 1967, he played with Monk’s touring eight- and nine-person groups.
In 1957, Mr. Griffin joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for a short stint, and in 1958 started making his own records for the Riverside label. On a series of recordings, including “Way Out” and “The Little Giant,” his rampaging energy got its moment in the sun: on tunes like “Cherokee,” famous vehicles to test a musician’s mettle, he was simply blazing.
A few years later he hooked up with Eddie Lockjaw Davis, a more blues-oriented tenor saxophonist, and made a series of records that act as barometers of taste: listeners tend to either find them thrilling or filled with too many notes, especially on Monk tunes. The matchup with Davis was a popular one, and they would sporadically reunite through the ‘70s and ‘80s.
In 1963 he left the United States, eventually settling in Paris and recording thereafter mostly for European labels — sometimes with other American expatriates like Kenny Clarke, sometimes with European rhythm sections. In 1973 he moved to Bergambacht, in the Netherlands; in the early 80s he moved to Poitiers, in southwestern France.
With his American quartet — including the pianist Michael Weiss and the drummer Kenny Washington — he stayed true to the bebop small-group ideal, and the 1991 record he made with the group for the Antilles label, called “The Cat,” was received warmly as a comeback.
Every April he returned to Chicago to visit family and play during his birthday week at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, and usually spent a week at the Village Vanguard in New York before returning home to his quiet countryside chateau.