Johnny Griffin, Saxophone Giant, is Dead at 80

Johnny Griffin, often called “the world’s fastest saxophonist,” died today, July 25, at his home in the village of Mauprevoir, southwest France, at the age of 80. The cause was not announced, however, the bop tenor legend had been scheduled to perform tonight.

Griffin, who lived in France for the last 18 years of his life, was recognized initially for his contributions to the music of such greats as Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and Lionel Hampton, but is mainly lauded for his many contributions as a leader. Nicknamed “The Little Giant,” Griffin’s speedy blowing dazzled listeners, but that speed never obscured the beauty and strength of his melodies.

Born April 24, 1928 in Chicago, Griffin first played clarinet in high school, before switching over to alto saxophone. In 1941, at a school dance, he witnessed tenor saxophonist Gene Ammons and switched yet again, this time sticking to it. His first professional gigs were with the guitarist T-Bone Walker, but Griffin came to prominence in the mid- to late ’40s in the bands of Hampton (with whom he made his first recording in 1945 at age 17) and Joe Morris. He also worked during that period with Monk and Bud Powell.

An Army stint in the early 1950s, most of which was spent a member of the Army Band, was followed by a yearlong stay in Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and then with Monk. Griffin cut his first single sides for the OKeh label in 1953 and released his debut album as a leader, Introducing Johnny Griffin, in 1956 on Blue Note, accompanied by Wynton Kelly (piano) Curly Russell (bass) and Max Roach (drums).

Griffin joined Blakey again in 1957, but one of the most essential; sessions of Griffin’s career took place on April 6 of that year at Rudy Van Gelder’s Studio in Hackensack, NJ, when Griffin, along with Lee Morgan (trumpet), John Coltrane, Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley (all on tenor saxophone), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Blakey (drums) cut the album A Blowin’ Session for Blue Note. It is still hailed today as one of the great bop albums of its era.

It was in 1958 that Griffin’s reputation for speed on his instrument came to the fore. Critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote, “Unquestionably Johnny Griffin can play the tenor saxophone faster, literally, than anyone else alive. At least he can claim this until it’s demonstrated otherwise. And in the course of playing with this incredible speed, he also manages to blow longer without refueling than you would ordinarily consider possible. With this equipment he is able to play almost all there could possibly be played in any give chorus.”

Griffins style and the quality of his playing remained consistent throughout his lengthy career. In 1958 he worked with Monk, Nat Adderley, Chet Baker and others while, moving over to the Riverside label, he continued to release landmark albums under his own name and in collaboration. Those included 1960’s Tough Tenors, one of several recordings that which paired Griffin with fellow tenor Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis. Griffin remained prolific in the studio, cutting albums for such labels as Jazzland, Prestige, Emarcy, Inner City, Galaxy, Atlantic, Black Lion, Antilles, Verve, Dreyfus and many others, as well as contributing to recordings by Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Ray Brown, Jimmy Smith and other artists. His final documented recordings appear to have been made around 2000 but Griffin continued to perform until his death, mostly with local European musicians.