It was particularly sad for this writer, as I have a vivid memory of him performing at Ronnie Scott's in the early 1960s. He was among the first American musicians to play in the UK after a ban on foreign players was lifted by the musician's union. Primed as I was by the tenor playing of Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes, I was astonished at the power and invention of Griffin's playing, the torrent of ideas pouring out for chorus after chorus while the British rhythm section struggled to keep up with him. I bought and cherished many of his subsequent recordings but they never quite captured the live experience. He came to be known as "the world's fastest saxophonist," in fact he was once quoted as saying: "I like to play fast. I get excited, and I have to sort of control myself, restrain myself. But when the rhythm section gets cooking, I want to explode." But this overlooks other facets of his playing: his gorgeous tone, his perfect intonation, his gritty blues inflections, his sense of humor.
Born in Chicago in 1928, Griffin attended DuSable High School, the same school as Nat King Cole and Dinah Washington. He took to music early under the tutelage of music director Walter Dyett, starting out on clarinet before moving on to oboe and then alto sax. At age 15 he was playing with T-Bone Walker in a band led by Walker's brother, and three days after graduating from DuSable he joined Lionel Hampton's big band. It was Hampton who had him switch from alto to tenor sax, and helped shape his early style by seating him next to Arnett Cobb. Griffin's first recordings were with Hampton's band.
After a stint in the army, Griffin returned to Chicago and then New York, spending the 1950s building his reputation in the company of the leading performers of that era. He joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, participating on a memorable recording that brought Thelonius Monk together with Blakey's group. Subsequently, when John Coltrane was incapacitated, Griffin was brought in to replace him in Monk's quartet at New York's Five Spot. The live recording that resulted, "Thelonious Monk at the Five Spot," contains extended tenor solos that come close to capturing the power of his best work.
Signed to Blue Note records, Griffin made three critically-acclaimed recordings under his own name, before Orrin Keepnews captured him for the Riverside label. He was paired with the very best players: Clark Terry, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, Curly Russell, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, and produced work of consistent quality. From 1960 to 1962 he and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis explored the "tough tenors" concept with their own quintet, recording several albums together.
In 1963, Griffin became part of a trend that found American jazz musicians such as Dexter Gordon, Leo Wright, Sahib Shihab, Kenny Clarke and others leaving the US for greener pastures in Europe, where they were more appreciated and could enjoy a more agreeable lifestyle, free from the constant hassles and discrimination they found in Chicago and New York. Unlike Gordon, Griffin never returned, other than for brief visits. He settled in France, moved to the Netherlands for a while, then returned to France where he made his home for the last 24 years in the town of Availles-Limouzine. He appeared regularly as a soloist at jazz clubs throughout Europe, hooked up with visiting Americans such as Dizzy Gillespie, Nat Adderley, and Gerry Mulligan, formed tenor sax pairings with Ronnie Scott and again with "Lockjaw" Davis, and was a regular member of several European jazz orchestras such as the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band and a group led by Peter Herbolzheimer. Employing the cream of European jazz artists such as Scott, "Toots" Thielemans, vocalist Rita Reys, and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, along with expatriate and visiting Americans that included Herb Geller, Stan Getz, Art Farmer, Slide Hampton and Grady Tate, with Quincy Jones as arranger, these outfits performed at a very high level, and they had a first-rate soloist in Johnny Griffin.
Undoubtedly, had he stayed in the US, Johnny Griffin would have received far more recognition; perhaps he could have become an NEA Jazz Master. Maybe now he will be voted, posthumously, into the Down Beat Hall Of Fame. He certainly deserves it; he was a master of the tough, no-nonsense, (no doubling!), straight-down-the-middle, blues-drenched, no-tempo-too-fast- but-I-can-also-play-a-ballad school of tenor saxophone playing. But he gave up all the polls and awards for a lifestyle amid the beauty of western France, in an environment where jazz is still thought of as a major art form worth supporting and preserving. Who can blame him? He will be missed in France. Let's just hope he will be remembered in America as well.
Note: Griffin is the subject of a recent book by Mike Hennessey, entitled "The Little Giant: The Story of Johnny Griffin." London: Northway Publications, 2008.