Johnny Griffin performing in Moscow, Feb. 2007.
Pianist Michael Weiss remembers the first time he saw Johnny "Griff" Griffin — onstage with Dexter Gordon at the 1978 Ann Arbor Jazz Festival. "The whole audience levitated off their seats! [Hill Auditorium] was full of people going nuts" to the finger-flying, all-over-their-horns, roof-lifting, two-tenor extravaganza.
Weiss didn't even bother to dream that he would play with Griffin someday, but in 1986, drummer Kenny Washington brought Weiss into the band for eleven nights in a row — in New York, Chicago, the Bay Area, and soon thereafter, Japan. Every year, all the way to 2001, as Griffin prepared to leave his home in France for his U.S. gigs, he would say to his trio, "I'm going to have to get ready to play with you cats."
As a student at DuSable High School, under the legendary Captain Walter Dyett ("feared and revered" says the Chicago Tribune), Griffin learned the reeds including oboe and English horn. In the Army, Griffin was sent to Hawaii to play oboe in a military band; most of the soldiers drafted with him were killed in Korea. In New York in the late 1950s, he worked most notably with Thelonious Monk. Griffin's first booking as a leader at the Village Vanguard came in November 1959. He moved to Paris in 1963. The concerts with Dexter Gordon — one in Ann Arbor, one at Carnegie Hall — were his homecoming after 15 years in Europe.
Vanguard proprietor Lorraine Gordon cites the big old poster of Gordon and Griffin from 1978 on the wall and says, "He was a great star. Everyone loved him because he was adorable, lots of fun, a true musician in the best sense. . . . He was an original. No matter what he played, it 'swang.'"
In the words of Dee Dee Bridgewater, who coincidentally moved to France 25 years after Griffin, "[Johnny's] playing reflected his personality — crisp, soulful, heartfelt, clean, smooth. Johnny always had a glint of playfulness in his eyes. His outlook on life was youthful, and he kept that youthfulness alive throughout his life, even during his suffering.
"I rejoice at having had the opportunity of personally being touched by Johnny, laughing at life with Johnny." Though writers invented the phrase "tough tenor" for Griffin and his few peers, Bridgewater calls him something else — "a true jazz angel."