Johnny Griffin

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Johnny Griffin
Griffin performing in 2007
Griffin performing in 2007
Background information
Birth nameJohn Arnold Griffin III
Born(1928-04-24)April 24, 1928
Chicago, Illinois, U.S
DiedJuly 25, 2008(2008-07-25) (aged 80)
Paris, France
Instrument(s)Tenor saxophone
Years active1940s–2008
LabelsBlue Note, Riverside

John Arnold Griffin III (April 24, 1928[1] – July 25, 2008)[2] was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. Nicknamed "the Little Giant" for his short stature and forceful playing, Griffin's career began in the mid-1940s and continued until the month of his death. A pioneering figure in hard bop, Griffin recorded prolifically as a bandleader in addition to stints with pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Art Blakey, in partnership with fellow tenor Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and as a member of the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band after he moved to Europe in the 1960s. In 1995, Griffin was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.[3]

Early life and career[edit]

Griffin studied music at DuSable High School in Chicago under Walter Dyett,[1] starting out on clarinet before moving on to oboe and then alto saxophone. While still at high school at the age of 15, Griffin was playing with T-Bone Walker in a band led by Walker's brother.[4]

Alto saxophone was still his instrument of choice when he joined Lionel Hampton's big band,[1] three days after his high school graduation, but Hampton encouraged him to take up the tenor, playing alongside Arnett Cobb. He first appeared on a Los Angeles recording with Hampton's band in 1945 at the age of 17.[5]

By mid-1947, Griffin and fellow Hampton band member Joe Morris,[1] had formed a sextet made up of local musicians, including George Freeman,[4] where he remained for the next two years.[1] His playing can be heard on early rhythm and blues recordings for Atlantic Records. By 1951, Griffin was playing baritone saxophone in an R&B septet led by former bandmate Arnett Cobb.[6]

After returning to Chicago from two years in the Army, Griffin began to establish a reputation as one of the premiere saxophonists in that city. Thelonious Monk enthusiastically encouraged Orrin Keepnews of the Riverside label to sign the young tenor, but before he could act Blue Note had signed Griffin.

He joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1957,[1] and his recordings from that time include an album joining together the Messengers and Thelonious Monk. Griffin then succeeded John Coltrane as a member of Monk's Five Spot quartet; he can be heard on the albums Thelonious in Action and Misterioso.

Griffin's unique style, based on an astounding technique, included a vast canon of bebop language. He was known to quote generously from classical, opera and other musical forms. A prodigious player, he was often subjected to "cutting sessions" (a musical battle between two musicians) involving a legion of tenor players, both in his hometown Chicago with Hank Mobley[7] and Gene Ammons, and on the road. Diminutive, he was distinctive as a fashionable dresser,[8] a good businessman, and a well-liked bandleader to other musicians.

Johnny Griffin backstage at Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, Half Moon Bay, California, 1985

Griffin was leader on his first Blue Note album Introducing Johnny Griffin in 1956. Also featuring Wynton Kelly on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums, the recording brought Griffin critical acclaim.[9]

The album A Blowin' Session (1957) featured John Coltrane and Hank Mobley. He played with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for a few months in 1957 and in the Thelonious Monk Sextet and Quartet (1958).[1] During this period, he recorded a set with Clark Terry on Serenade to a Bus Seat, featuring the rhythm trio of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones.[10]

Move to Europe[edit]

Griffin moved to France in 1963[11] and to the Netherlands in 1978. His relocation was the result of several factors, including income tax problems, a failing marriage and feeling "embittered by the critical acceptance of free jazz" in the United States, as journalist Ben Ratliff wrote.[12] Apart from appearing regularly under his own name at jazz clubs such as London's Ronnie Scott's, Griffin became a "first choice" sax player for visiting US musicians touring the continent during the 1960s and 1970s.

In 1965, he recorded albums with Wes Montgomery. He briefly rejoined Monk's groups (an Octet and Nonet) in 1967.[13] From 1967 to 1969, he was part of the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band.[1]

Griffin and Davis met up again in 1970 and recorded Tough Tenors Again 'n' Again,[14] and again with the Dizzy Gillespie Big 7 at the Montreux Jazz Festival.[15] In the late 1970s, Griffin recorded with Peter Herbolzheimer and His Big Band, which also included, among others, Nat Adderley, Derek Watkins, Art Farmer, Slide Hampton, Jiggs Whigham, Herb Geller, Wilton Gaynair, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Rita Reys, Jean "Toots" Thielemans, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Grady Tate, and Quincy Jones as arranger. He also recorded with the Nat Adderley Quintet in 1978,[16] having previously recorded with Adderley in 1958.

In 1978, Griffin and Dexter Gordon returned to the U.S., and the two performed at the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, before recording Live at Carnegie Hall.[8]

Griffin's last concert was in Hyères, France on July 21, 2008. On July 25, 2008, he died of a heart attack at the age of 80 in Mauprévoir, near Availles-Limouzine, France.[8][17]


As leader/co-leader[edit]

As sideman[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Colin Larkin, ed. (1992). The Guinness Who's Who of Jazz (First ed.). Guinness Publishing. pp. 174/5. ISBN 0-85112-580-8.
  2. ^ "Johnny Griffin Dies in France". July 25, 2008. Retrieved July 27, 2021.
  3. ^ Zwerin, Mike (August 9, 1995). "Berklee, the Brand Name of Music Schools". The New York Times.
  4. ^ a b "In Conversation with Johnny Griffin" Archived March 18, 2010, at the Wayback Machine by Ted Panken at Archived October 21, 2015, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "Johnny Griffin Discography". Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  6. ^ Johnny Griffin catalog, Retrieved July 8, 2013.
  7. ^ "A Blowin' Session - Johnny Griffin | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  8. ^ a b c "Johnny Griffin At The Village Vanguard". Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  9. ^ "Introducing Johnny Griffin - Johnny Griffin | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  10. ^ "Serenade to a Bus Seat - Clark Terry Quintet | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  11. ^ "Johnny Griffin Biography, Songs, & Albums". AllMusic. Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  12. ^ Ratliff, Ben (2008). "Johnny Griffin, 80, Jazz Saxophonist, dies." The New York Times, July 26, 2008. Retrieved 12 September 2016
  13. ^ "Nonet: Live! - Thelonious Monk | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  14. ^ "Tough Tenors Again 'n' Again - Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis & Johnny Griffin Quintet, Johnny Griffin | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  15. ^ "At the Montreux Jazz Festival 1975 - Dizzy Gillespie Big 7 | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  16. ^ "A Little New York Midtown Music - Nat Adderley | Songs, Reviews, Credits". AllMusic. Retrieved February 27, 2022.
  17. ^ (in French) "Le saxophoniste américain Johnny Griffin est mort" Le Nouvel Observateur. Retrieved October 19, 2013.


External links[edit]