This weekend sadly marked the passing of yet another legend of jazz who chose to live overseas more than four decades ago. Chicago native Johnny Griffin, a small man and one of the great tenor saxophonists of all time (which earned him the moniker, “The Little Giant”) passed away in France hours before a gig on Friday night. He was 80 years old. At the age of 17 he was already establishing himself in Lionel Hampton’s Big Band, which he eventually left to lead his own quartet. During the 1950s he also earned world-wide fame as a member of both Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Thelonious Monk Quartet. And up to his final day, Griffin continued to tour all over Europe where his artistry was fully appreciated.
Perhaps not as famous or well-known in the States as saxophone giants and jazz innovators such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, or even Lester Young and Dexter Gordon, Griffin was one of the great be-bop players without question–a “Little Giant” who could really swing and picked his sidemen (including the sublime pianist Wynton Kelly) with impeccable care and taste. If you haven’t heard any good jazz lately, I highly recommend you seek out any of the following: “Introducing Johnny Griffin” (Blue Note 46536, 1956, w/ Griffin, Kelly, Curly Russell, and Max Roach); the legendary “A Blowing Session” (Blue Note 81559, 1957, w/ Griffin, Coltrane and Hank Mobley all jamming together plus Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Art Blakey); and “The Little Giant” by the Johnny Griffin Sextet (Riverside Japanese import, maybe domestic by now, 1959, w/ Blue Mitchell, Julian Priester, Kelly, Sam Jones, and Albert Heath).