RIP Griff- The Little Giant

Johnny Griffin, one of my all-time favorite saxophonists, passed away last Friday. Griff first capture my attention when I was 19 years old. I ran across his Little Giant record and was entranced by it. At that time I hadn't yet developed a taste for Trane, and was just moving toward Cannonball from Bird. Griff was so fluid, confident and his sound expressive. I couldn't imagine how he articulated as fast as he did, it seemed almost super-human.

I was fortunate to see Griff at his peak in the late 80's, when Griffin was making his return to the States after living happily in France for some years. It was a freezing night in the middle of winter and it was dumping snow. I was sitting in the second row of the old 1369 Jazz club in Cambridge. The house was packed. The bassist Charnette Moffet was late to the gig and Griff was pacing around angrily as he warmed up with a tube sock in his bell. The crowd was starting to rumble and Griff was becoming more pissed off as each minute ticked by.

Twenty minutes after the show was scheduled to start Charnette rushed in from the freezing cold and made his way through the packed house to the bandstand. As Charnette set up his bass Griff gave him a dirty look and made a snide comment. As soon as Charnette was ready to play, which must have been well before his fingers had thawed out, Griff counted off the fastest blues I had ever heard. It must have been approaching 400 beats per minute. It was BLAZING!

Griff had build up quite a bit of steam while waiting for Charnette and was going to make him think twice about ever being late again. Griff must have played over 50 punishing choruses on that first tune. The crowd went nuts.

We were experiencing a true giant.

Tim Price on Griff
NY Times obituary

S.O.S. solo transcription

Rhythm-a-ning solo transcription

YouTube video 1
YouTube video 2
YouTube- Blues for Gonz
YouTube- Griff & LockJaw
YouTube- Griff w/Art Taylor


Adam said...

My favorite tenor player. Today, I was listening to the "Big Soul" compilation and wondering if he was still with us... when I saw your podcast upload.
I think I remember seeing him at Kuumbwa in the early 80s. He was billed as being able to play "There Will Never Be Another You" faster than anyone. A desert island pick of mine are 'Jazz Sounds of Africa' and 'Jazz Sahara' by Ahmed Abdul-Malik featuring Johnny Griffin. A late fifties miracle fusing traditional Arabic music with the bebop fury of Griff.

Thanks for the blog post, David.

MonksDream said...

Griff is right up there in my top 5
tenor players of all time. I didn't get to see him until the late nineties, playing at Yoshi's, after they'd opened their new spot at Jack London Square.

I can't remember who's band it was, but one of the young gun trumpet players with dreadlocks was also in the band. Griff played a smoking version of "Rhythm-an-ing" and after his solo, Roy Hargrove seemed like he was going to pass out. (I had to look up trumpet players to figure out who it was.)

Hargrove did the smart move and slowed everything down, since the lightning fast notes that had ricocheted off the walls out of Griff's horn had left the audience in a daze. An aside--I swear this is not Kenny Dorham writing the liner notes to Joe Henderson "First Page."

After that, Johnny looked out over the audience full of Yuppies and said, "Well, this next tune is called "Kick out the J.A.M.S." It's a blues, cuz you know, it stands for Jive Ass MotherfuckerS and I get nothin' but the blues having to play for y'all."

Never in my life had I seen any jazz musician make such an audacious statement, and half of us were laughing, while the J.A.M.S. were staring with their mouths hanging agape.

Griff then tore into one of the most soulful fast blues I'd ever heard. Pheeeewwww.

Plus, one of the jam session albums that I was always blown away by had to be "Blowin' Sessions" featuring Trane, Mobley, and Griff. I'm pretty sure that Mobley said that both him and Trane hung on for dear life, while Johnny Griffin, the "Sultan of Speed" blew them away with his verve, elan, and the utmost of cool.

What a great player, no-bullshit human being, and inspiration for everyone. Amen. When I saw him, I'm pretty sure that he was like 76 years old and still playing his ass off. I thought he would never die....

MonksDream said...

I have to add this to the links:

Kontakt said...

...I saw Griff last autumn in Prague, he was playing with his quartet at Prague Castle (which is a very very much prestigious gig with Mr. President Himself as master of ceremonies). Griff was 79 then and it took him two or three tunes to sound warmed up, but I'm sure it was also a matter of the weird acoustic conditions in that several hundred years old hall. The main thing was he definitely had the sound. Plus after second song he took a deep breath and said: "Growin' old............................is NO FUN!" I'll be always happy I was there...

Unknown said...

there is a fantastic movie made by the danish pianist niels van doky which features Griff (and drummer heath, toots thielmanns, didier lockwood and lena nielson) playing a concert in the copenhagen montmartre (it's from 2004). The movie is called 'Between a smile and a tear' and is a must for every jazz fan!!!

Unknown said...

this is an excerpt

tenorcat said...

Another one graduates to that big rehearsal band in the sky. Play the blues...

Monksdream, swear on my stack of Trane records I was at that
same Roy Hargrove show. Unless he did the same bit of stchick every night, I remember him asking the audience if there were any JAMFS in the audience. Like a dope I was the only one that raised their hand. Nobody knew what he was talking about. Too Funny...

I saw Johnny Griffin in the 70's at Keystone Korner and he just blew me away. I thought that he was just a shadow of his former self at Yoshi's. As the set went on, he did get off some really great solos. I thought Roy Hargrove was on fire. They played that tune Bebop and Roy smoked the first solo, then Johnny Griffin came back and killed.