MORE RELEASES FROM JOHNNY GRIFFIN
Since Johnny Griffin's precocious professional debut with Lionel Hampton in 1945, his best work has been guided by spontaneity. One of the fastest… More
The year 1978 was highly significant in the musical chronology of Johnny Griffin (b. 1928). On October 17, the native Chicagoan, who'd been living… More
Johnny Griffin's glorious memorial to Billie Holiday was completed two years to the day after her death on July 17, 1959. Deeply affected and… More
Johnny Griffin met the three Montgomery Brothers at Berkeley, California's Tsubo nightclub in 1962–but he didn't meet them all at once. One… More
ABOUT JOHNNY GRIFFIN
Johnny Griffin’s triumphant homecoming last fall, which ended 15 years of exclusively expatriate life in Europe, was one of jazz’s happiest, most heartwarming events in recent memory. Griffin found himself playing to an entirely new generation of fans, while his older fans discovered the tenor saxophonist to be playing better than ever.
During last year’s tour, Johnny recorded Return of the Griffin, his first American album in 15 years and his debut on the Galaxy label. Return of the Griffin features the touring band—pianist Ronnie Mathews, bassist Ray Drummond, and drummer Keith Copeland. It was produced by Griffin’s old friend and producer at Riverside, Orrin Keepnews.
Back in 1963, despite the solid reputation he had established as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Thelonious Monk’s group (and as co-leader of a band with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis), Griffin felt forced to flee to Europe.
“Back then,” he says, “everything was falling apart for me at the same time. I had family troubles, financial troubles. The music scene just wasn’t happening. And when my own music began to get sad, I said to myself, ‘Why stay and suffer? Bye!’
“I lived in Paris for ten years, and in Holland for the past six. Now I’m living with my wife and daughter in a converted barn in Bergambacht, about 20 kilometers outside of Rotterdam. It’s beautiful country—windmills, flowers everywhere, lovely old houses.”
During the Sixties, Griffin was one of an elite corps of resident American jazzmen in Europe, a group that included Kenny Clarke, Arthur Taylor, Horace Parlan, Kenny Drew, and, of course, Dexter Gordon (“Dexter’s family to me,” he smiles). He had no trouble finding work there. He played in radio and television studio bands, was installed for long engagements in clubs such as the Blue Note in Paris, played in countless jazz festivals, and continued his recording career unabated. He did everything but return to the United States. And he missed it: “Europeans love jazz very much, but American audiences respond to the music in a really special way.”
Johnny Griffin was born April 24, 1928 in Chicago. “All I ever wanted to be was a jazz musician. My father had played a little cornet and my mother played piano and sang a little. We had a lot of 78 rpm records in the house. In the beginning I listened to Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, Don Byas and Lester Young. Then one day my cousins were having a party and somebody put on a 78 of Jay McShann, with Walter Brown singing ‘Hootie Blues.’ And then there was an alto solo that knocked me dead. Like, crash, ‘What is that?! Is that Pres?’ No, it was an alto. It was Charlie Parker. I wore that solo out on that record.
“I started playing clarinet when I was 13 and saxophone when I was 14. Before that I had studied piano and steel guitar. I took classes in all the clarinets, oboe, and English horn. The bass clarinet was almost as tall as me.”
The “Little Giant,” as he has been referred to, stands 63 inches tall. “I got on the scale once in the winter of 1945—I was somewhere in Ohio with Lionel Hampton’s band—and I weighed 97 pounds wearing my overcoat, boots, hat and all. I was five-one or five-two, just 17 years old, not fully grown.”
After leaving Hampton in 1947, Griffin joined trumpeter Joe Morris’s band, playing a variety of jazz, blues, and r&b. Meanwhile, he spent a great deal of time watching and listening to the great players: “I always respected Coleman Hawkins’s force and power, but I followed Webster, Hodges, Pres, and Bird. Altogether I saw Bird play about ten times. I was completely overawed by the man. He was a man who showed not only the potential of the saxophone, but the potential of human expression. At times, Bud Powell was like this too.
“Actually, for the most part I stayed away from the saxophone players. I spent a lot of time with the pianists and trumpet players, because I didn’t want to sound like any other saxophonist.
“Back in the Forties, I walked with Monk, Bud Powell, Elmo Hope, and Walter Bishop—they were my teachers. From them I learned more about the harmonic structures underlying the music. I met Thelonious in 1948 and stayed at his house every day, with Elmo and Bud. Monk didn’t play much— except when he was rehearsing his own band. He’d sit there and check out what Elmo and Bud were doing. Sometimes I’d have my horn out and play, but mostly I’d be listening.”
Griffin was in Monk’s band during 1958, “but I would say Monk has been more of an influence on me in the past six or seven years than he was then. The real effect, the overall conception, hit me later. When I was with his band, I was still trying to prove something with the saxophone, and now I’m more relaxed.”
During the Fifties and early Sixties, Griffin was known as a brilliant technician, a fiery player who had an endless supply of chops. But there has always been an underlying warmth, a blues-based sense of everyday humanity, in his music. About ten years ago, Arthur Taylor interviewed Griffin for his recently published book, Notes and Tones. Johnny, at the time of the interview, was in a rather bitter and militant mood, but the comment that follows reveals his basic attitude: “I’m always talking about using my horn like a machine gun, but not to kill anybody. I want to shoot them with notes of love.”
Today, he says, “I use a lot more space in my playing than when I was 25 or 30 years old. Before, I felt like I was in a rush to play everything possible— I got angry when I had to take a breath. I wanted to keep goin’ all the time. No space—fill it up! I was always motivated to play hard. I got so excited when I played, and I still do. I want to eat up the music, just like a child eating candy. The difference is that today I can back off and control myself.”
Last fall’s prodigal return was a revelation to Griffin. “It was so wonderful to stand in the middle of the Carnegie Hall stage and have everyone in the audience applauding, before I even played a note. It was the same at Keystone Korner in San Francisco and at the Monterey Jazz Festival. A musician can feel when the audience is friendly and positive.
“I want to turn on the audience to my particular experience, the highlights and the lowlights, the ups and downs. All I can do is try to stay in shape by practicing and being mentally and emotionally prepared. Sometimes I feel myself stepping outside my body and watching myself play, like I have nothing to do with it.
“The music is always fun, because you can play the same tune a million different ways. And when the rhythm section is swingin’ and the people are really feeling good—man! Oh baby, I feel guilty for feeling so good.’