Friday, July 25, 2008

Jazz great, Johnny Griffin, has died.

(PARIS) Jazz tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, who played alongside such luminaries as Lionel Hampton, Art Blakey and Thelonius Monk, died Friday, 25 July 2008, in France, his agent Helene Manfredi said. He was 80.

Nicknamed the Little Giant, Griffin was due to perform Friday evening alongside US organist Rhoda Scott, French saxophonist Olivier Temime and drummer Julie Saury.

Griffin died at home in Mauprevoir, a village in the west-central La Vienne district, where he had spent the last 18 years of his life. The cause of death was not disclosed.

After studying music at the DuSable High School in his native Chicago, Griffin joined vibes star Hampton's orchestra in 1945 before leaving with trumpeter Joe Morris to join the latter's own band.

Throughout the 1950s, he played with a variety of combos, including Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.

He also played alongside cornetist Nat Adderley and recorded with John Coltrane. The fruits of that collaboration produced the 1957 Blue Note album for which he is perhaps best remembered, "A Blowin' Session."

At the start of the 1960s, Griffin founded his own group along with another saxophone player, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, but in 1962 he decided to set up home in France.

A spell in the Netherlands followed in the 1970s, before his return to France, where he continued to record and tour right to the end.

Legendary London jazz club Ronnie Scott's described Griffin on its website as a "member of jazz's elite ... his burning solos and furiously nimble runs anchored by an amazingly well-informed and complete grasp of melody and harmony, marking him out as one of the greatest tenor sax players".

Being from Chicago, he studied music at DuSable High School under Walter Dyett, starting out on clarinet before moving on to oboe, alto sax and finally, shortly after joining Lionel Hampton's Orchestra, the tenor saxophone alongside Arnett Cobb. While still at high school, at 15 Griffin was playing with T-Bone Walker in a band led by Walker's brother.

He worked in Lionel Hampton's Orchestra (first appearing on a Los Angeles recording in 1945, at the age of 17), leaving to join fellow Hampton band member Joe Morris's Orchestra from 1947 to 1949.

As a leader of his own band, 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, brought him critical acclaim. A 1957 Blue Note album A Blowing Session featured him with fellow tenor players 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). During this period, he recorded a very smooth and stylish set with Clark Terry on Serenade To a Bus Seat featuring the rhythm trio of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones.

At this stage in his career, Griffin was known as the "fastest tenor in the west", for the ease with which he could execute fast note runs with excellent intonation. Subsequent to his three albums for Blue Note, Griffin did not get alone with the label's house engineer Rudy Van Gelder, he recorded for the Riverside label. From 1960 to 1962 he and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis led their own quintet, recording several albums together.

He went to live in France in 1963, moving to the Netherlands in 1978. Apart from appearing regularly under his own 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 60s and 70s. He briefly rejoined Monk's groups (an Octet and Nonet) in 1967.

Griffin and Davis 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 some albums with Wes Montgomery. From 1967 to 1969, he formed 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 arranger. He also recorded with the Nat Adderley Quintet in 1978, having previously recorded with Adderley in 1958.

His last concert, July 21, 2008 was played in Hyères, France. Johnny Griffin died in Availles-Limouzine, France, where he had lived for the past 24 years.



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