Hard-bop saxophonist Johnny Griffin died this morning in Availles-Limouzine, France. He was 80 years old. Diminutive in stature (he stood 5’5″) but large in sound, Griffin was a technically gifted player who displayed dazzling speed and remarkable touch on his instrument. He showed more sensitivity with a ballad than could rightly be expected of a man once called “the world’s fastest saxophonist”.
Griffin was an up-and-comer around the time be-bop was breaking out in the late 40’s, and he was deeply influenced by the style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. The lightning fast tempo of be-bop was never far from his sound, and Griffin held onto it long after other artists had abandoned it for newer and more profitable styles. He often offset his tremendous speed showcases with ballads and blues, but it’s clear that be-bop was the rhythm of Johnny Griffin’s heart beat.
He played alongside luminaries such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Art Blakey, and made a number of fine albums in the 50’s and 60’s for Riverside and Blue Note Records. A Blowin’ Session (1957) is considered his masterpiece, but we also recommend Introducing Johnny Griffin (1956) and The Little Giant (1959).
The world lost another jazz great today. Johnny Griffin may not have been a household name, but he’ll be sorely missed around these parts.
Listen: The Message (from the album The Little Giant)