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The Little Giant Steps On: Johnny Griffin, 1928-2008

News came this Friday morning that tenor saxophonist and hardbop great Johnny Griffin has passed away from a heart attack at the age of 80.

Johnny GriffinNews came this Friday morning via several sources that tenor saxophonist and hardbop great Johnny Griffin has passed away from a heart attack at the age of 80. Ben Ratliff has an obituary online for the New York Times, and Doug Ramsey has posted a tribute that includes a link to a retrospective he wrote earlier this year over at Rifftides. Griffin, nicknamed “the Little Giant” because he was five feet five but produced a contrasting sound of immense strength and individualism, had a long and successful career that touched on several facets of modern jazz history–a student shaped by an excellent but segregated African-American musical education system, jousting partner with Eddie Lockjaw Davis in the “Tough Tenor Quintet” that embodied the thrill of the cutting contest, and also, in the 1960s and 70s, an American jazz expatriate in Europe.

Thelonious in ActionMy introduction to Johnny Griffin came through the fearless live albums that he recorded with Thelonious Monk–Thelonious in Action and Misterioso. Although Griffin’s 1950s triple-tenor-threat A Blowin’ Session, which paired him with John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, is one of the most-frequently noted albums in articles about the Chicago saxophonist, listeners would be well-advised to check out (in addition to the Monk titles) some of his late-1950s and early-1960s Riversides as well, albums like Way Out! and Johnny Griffin Sextet, that capture the urgency and drive of Griffin’s South Side soul. You can also hear some of Johnny Griffin in these previous Night Lights shows: Art Blakey’s Class of ’57, East Meets West: Ahmed Abdul-Malik and World Jazz, and For Lady: Early Tribute LPs to Billie Holiday.

Watch Griffin run down the bebop classic “Night in Tunisia” with trumpeter Woody Shaw:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYFH5NVY3co

Jazz critic Larry Kart, in his marvelous book Jazz In Search of Itself, cites Andre Breton’s statement “Beauty will be convulsive, or it will not be at all” in relation to Griffin’s playing, and goes on to write:

The sound Griffin gets–so rich in overtones that it can seem internally dissonant–the splintered logic of his lines, the jagged rhythmic thrusts in the midst of gentle ballads, the blatant tonal distortions all proclaim that beauty can no longer be met in isolation, that instead it can arise only when the artist confronts the radical discontinuities of the modern world. Indeed, if a representative Griffin solo were to be transformed into a visual work of art, one envisions a structure shaped from various pieces of cultural-physical debris–a cracked jukebox, a smoking truck tire, and some buzzing neon tubing fused to a 1953 Buick Skylark grille and bumper… Griffin came up with a music in which romantic emotions were present but constantly beleagured, a way of playing that had to test each tender impulse by running it through an acid bath. So even though the notes that finally emerge from Griffin’s horn may not be beautiful in any ordinary sense, they are a kind of beauty that urban America permits and inspires.

One of my favorite passages from James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man states, “Michael Robartes remembers forgotten beauty and, when his arms wrap her round, he presses in his arms the loveliness which has long faded from the world. Not this. Not at all. I desire to press in my arms the loveliness which has not yet come into the world.” These are difficult times for those who love jazz of the 1945-1990 era and the artists who performed it. We lose musicians nearly every week, it seems; since I began this blog component of the Night Lights program, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, and Frank Morgan are just several of the players who have passed on. When we lose them, we lose our living connections to the places and times from which they came. Griffin’s fire was forged in the cauldron of the bebop and hardbop eras, the mid-20th-century world of Chicago blues and African-American community, and a host of other circumstances that have begun to disintegrate, for better and for worse, into the slow compost of history. Players today have to find their own fire; they’ve grown up in different times and have different things to rebel against, different things to celebrate. Sometimes in jazz the Saroyan edict gets turned on its head–those who learn too much from the past are doomed to repeat it. Johnny Griffin came up in a time of great innovation, and yet a time when dangerously obliterating influences could take hold, whether they were drugs or the drug-like spell of certain players. In spite of this he found his own fierce way. We won’t forget his convulsive beauty, even as we wonder how beauty may manifest itself now in a new century of jazz.

David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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  • colette

    IU Music School grad Michael Weiss was Griffin’s pianist in the US since 1987.

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