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OBITUARIES : Johnny Griffin, 1928 - 2008

Tenor saxophonist known as 'Little Giant' had a signature style marked by speed

July 26, 2008|Jocelyn Y. Stewart | Times Staff Writer

Johnny Griffin, the tenor saxophonist known as the "Little Giant," whose big, rich sound and lightning speed made for a distinct musical signature during an era when bebop was king, has died. He was 80.

Griffin died Friday at his home in France, his agent, Helene Manfredi, told Bloomberg News. The cause was not reported.

Though he was often called the "world's fastest saxophonist," Griffin -- who jammed with such greats as Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Art Blakey -- did not see speed as the key element of his playing.

"Everybody called me a racehorse, but feeling good is my thing," Griffin said in a 1995 Times article. "Art Blakey used to say to me, 'You fire that [saxophone] like it's a machine gun.' I'd say, 'Yeah, man, but those are pellets of love.' "

Griffin is credited with helping to spark renewed interest in bebop in the 1970s, with performances at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1975, in Tokyo in 1976 and throughout the U.S. in the latter part of the decade.

"He was very original," said drummer Louis Hayes, who performed with Griffin and many other jazz artists. Griffin "had a great knowledge of his instrument and music and . . . he had a tremendous impact on this art form we call jazz."

Born John Arnold Griffin III in Chicago on April 24, 1928, Griffin grew up in a house that was often filled with music. His mother played piano and sang in the church choir; his father had played cornet. At 6, Griffin began studying the piano and later added the Hawaiian steel guitar.

At DuSable High School in the 1940s, under bandmaster Capt. Walter Dyett, Griffin learned clarinet and oboe, and then the alto saxophone. His true love was the tenor sax -- a big instrument for the diminutive musician, who did not reach his final height of about 5 feet 5 until after high school. Outside of school, he played alto sax in a band with T-Bone Walker.

Vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, who while visiting DuSable heard Griffin play, invited him to join his band in 1945. Griffin, who was 17, graduated on a Thursday and on Sunday began his first professional gig with one of the most celebrated musicians of the day. While playing with Hampton, Griffin switched to tenor sax.

In the 1950s, he moved to New York, where he played with R&B trumpeter Joe Morris, drummers Philly Joe Jones and Jo Jones and saxophonist Arnett Cobb. Older musicians who had influenced him -- saxophonists Ben Webster, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins -- took Griffin under their wing when he moved to the city. His friends included pianists Monk, Bud Powell and Elmo Hope.

"They had so much respect for each other," Griffin said in the 1995 Times article. "I'd walk the streets of Harlem with them every day. That was my education."

While serving in the Army in the early 1950s, Griffin formed a small band of his own. A colonel was impressed and ordered Griffin to be placed in the Army band -- a decision that kept him out of combat in Korea.

In 1957, Griffin joined Blakey and later played in a Monk quartet. With tenor saxophonist Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Griffin co-led a quintet in the early 1960s. Their "battles," high-energy feats of improvisation, can be heard on "Tough Tenor Favorites," released in 1962.

Griffin's many recordings also include "Introducing Johnny Griffin" (1956), "A Blowin' Session" (1957) with saxophonists Hank Mobley and John Coltrane, and "Change of Pace" (1961).

Disheartened by the changes in jazz -- which he called "noise" -- and plagued by tax troubles, Griffin moved to Europe in the early 1960s. He lived in the Netherlands for many years and later settled in a chateau in southwest France. In Europe, jazz had a higher profile and racism a lesser presence, he said.

But beginning in 1978, with a performance with saxophonist Dexter Gordon, he returned regularly to the United States to perform and celebrate his birthday.

In a review of a 1978 concert, then-Times critic Leonard Feather called Griffin "a hard-driving performer with a crackling energetic sound and the ability to create flawlessly swinging lines that never let up."

In later years, Griffin, who was also a composer, often performed with his longtime drummer, Kenny Washington. Griffin's album "Smokin' Sax" was released Tuesday, according to

Griffin had an explanation for the speed that defined his style.

"I got so excited when I played, and I still do," he once said. "I want to eat up the music like a child eating candy."


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