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Tue, 04.24.1928

Johnny Griffin, Saxophonist born

Johnny Griffin (2007)

*Johnny Griffin was born on this date in 1928.  He was a Black jazz tenor saxophonist and bandleader.  

John Arnold Griffin III was born in Chicago, Illinois, living on the South Side of the Second City with his mother, a singer, and father, who played cornet. As an adolescent, he liked hearing Gene Ammons play and studied music at DuSable High School in Chicago.   He started on clarinet before moving on to oboe and then alto sax.

While still at high school at the age of 15, Griffin was playing with T-Bone Walker.  An alto saxophone was still his instrument of choice when he joined Lionel Hampton's big band three days after his high school graduation. Still, 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 17. By mid-1947, Griffin and fellow Hampton band member Joe Morris had formed a sextet. By 1951 Griffin was playing baritone saxophone.  After returning to Chicago from two years in the Army, Griffin established a reputation as one of the premiere saxophonists in that city.  

Blue Note Records signed Griffin to their label.  Griffin was the leader of 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.  He joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1957, and Griffin succeeded John Coltrane as a member of Thelonious Monk's Five Spot quartet. 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.  Diminutive, he was distinctive as a fashionable dresser, a good businessman, and a well-liked bandleader to other musicians.   

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 the Thelonious Monk Sextet and Quartet (1958). 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.  Griffin moved to France in 1963 and to the Netherlands in 1978.

As journalist Ben Ratliff would write, his relocation resulted from income tax problems, a failing marriage, and feeling "embittered by the critical acceptance of free jazz" in the United States.  Apart from appearing regularly under his name at jazz clubs such as London's Ronnie Scott's, Griffin became the "first choice" sax player for visiting US musicians touring the continent during the 1960s and '70s.  

Griffin met up again in 1970 and recorded Tough Tenors Again 'n' Again, and again with the Dizzy Gillespie Big 7 at the Montreux Jazz Festival. In 1965 he recorded albums with Wes Montgomery. From 1967 to 1969, he was part of the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band and, in the late '70s, 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 an arranger. He also recorded with the Nat Adderley Quintet in 1978, previously with Adderley in 1958. On July 25, 2008, Johnny Griffin died of a heart attack at 80 in France; his last concert was in Hyères, France, on July 21, 2008. 

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