Johnny Griffin, a jazz tenor saxophonist from Chicago whose speed, control and harmonic acuity made him one of the most talented musicians of his generation, and who abandoned his hopes for an American career when he moved to Europe in 1963, died Friday in France. He was 80 and had lived in Availles-Limouzine for 24 years.
His height – about 5 feet 5 – earned him the nickname “The Little Giant”; his speed in bebop improvising marked him as “The Fastest Gun in the West”; a group he led with Eddie Lockjaw Davis was informally called the “tough tenor” band, a designation that was eventually applied to a whole school of hard bop tenor players.
And in general, Griffin suffered from categorization. In the early 1960s, he became embittered by the acceptance of free jazz; he stayed true to his identity as a bebopper. When he felt the American jazz marketplace had no use for him (at a time he was also having marital and tax troubles), he left for Holland.
At that point, America lost one of its best musicians, even if his style fell out of sync with the times.
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“It's not like I'm looking to prove anything any more,” he said in a 1993 interview. “At this age, what can I prove?”
Indeed, his work in the 1990s, with an American quartet that stayed constant whenever he revisited his home country to perform or record, had a new sound, mellower and sweeter than in his younger days.
Griffin's career started in a hurry: At the age of 12, attending his grammar school graduation dance at the Parkway ballroom in Chicago, he saw saxophonist Gene Ammons play in King Kolax's big band and decided what his instrument would be. By 14, he was playing alto saxophone in a variety of situations, including a group called the Baby Band with schoolmates, and occasionally with the guitarist T-Bone Walker.
At 18, three days after his high school graduation, Griffin left Chicago to join Lionel Hampton's big band, switching to tenor saxophone. From then until 1951, he was mostly on the road. By 1947, he was touring with Joe Morris, a fellow Chicagoan who ran a rhythm-and-blues band. He entered the army in 1951, was stationed in Hawaii, and played in an Army band.
Griffin was of an impressionable age when Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie became a force in jazz. He heard both with the Billy Eckstine band in 1945; having first internalized the more ballad-like saxophone sound earlier popularized by Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster, he was now entranced by the lightning-fast phrasing of the new music, bebop.
In 1963, he left the U.S., eventually settling in Paris and recording thereafter mostly for European labels.
With his American quartet, he stayed true to the bebop small-group ideal, and the 1991 record he made with the group for the Antilles label, called “The Cat,” was received warmly.
Every April he returned to Chicago to visit family and play during his birthday week at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, and usually spent a week at the Village Vanguard in New York before returning home to his quiet countryside chateau.