Fleet Jazz Saxophonist Johnny Griffin Dies Once billed as the "world's fastest saxophonist," the Chicago native played in the bands of Lionel Hampton and Thelonious Monk. He was known as one of the strongest and most proficient exponents of hard-swinging bebop traditions.

Fleet Jazz Saxophonist Johnny Griffin Dies

Johnny Griffin performs in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in the summer of 2007. Robert Vos/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Robert Vos/AFP/Getty Images

Jazz musician Johnny Griffin, once billed as "the world's fastest saxophonist," has died of undisclosed causes at his home in France. He was 80.

Known as the "Little Giant," Griffin stood just under 5 1/2 feet. It never hindered him, though, from becoming one of the strongest saxophonists of the post-bebop tradition.

Born in Chicago in 1928, Griffin was one of many jazz giants to be trained in the music program at DuSable High School, where Captain Walter Dyett was the music director. After meeting bandleader and percussionist Lionel Hampton in a jam session, the 17-year-old Griffin was invited to tour with Hampton's orchestra.

After a brief stint with the U.S. Army, Griffin returned to Chicago, where word spread of his talent. He moved to New York City with a record deal in place, and soon replaced John Coltrane in the quartet of pianist Thelonious Monk.

"I found it difficult at times — I mean, difficult," Griffin said in an interview for NPR's Jazz Profiles. "I'm enjoying playing with him, enjoying playing music, but when I'm playing my solos, for instance, the way his comping is so strong, playing his own music, that it's almost like you're in a padded cell. I mean, trying to express yourself, because his music, with him comping, is so overwhelming; it's almost like you're trying to break out of a room made of marshmellows."

As the economic climate for jazz began to decline in the U.S. during the 1960s, Griffin was among the many American jazz musicians who found Europe more receptive. For personal and economic reasons, he moved to France in the early 1960s, returning to the U.S. only to perform.

"My French is terrible, but I can make it," Griffin said. "You know what I am? I'm from the Southeast side of Chicago. I just live here. And I enjoy my living here. I enjoy it. No reservations."

Johnny Griffin: In Memoriam

Hear Johnny Griffin

Hear Johnny Griffin Play 'All the Things You Are'

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/93036531/93019819" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Recorded live for JazzSet at the Village Vanguard in New York, with Michael Weiss (piano), John Webber (bass) and Kenny Washington (drums), on May 7, 2000.

Johnny Griffin performing in Moscow. Andrew Kounitskiy hide caption

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Andrew Kounitskiy

Jazz musician Johnny Griffin, once billed as "the world's fastest saxophonist," died of undisclosed causes at his home in France on July 25, 2008. He was 80. JazzSet offers this remembrance.

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," Weiss says. "[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 1987, drummer Kenny Washington brought Weiss into the band for an amazing tour. It commenced with 11 nights in a row, hitting cities across the country and, soon thereafter, Japan. The tours continued every year until 2001. Griffin looked forward to them: As he reconnected with his U.S. trio from his home in France, he would say, "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, 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, but he moved to Paris in 1963. The concerts with Dexter Gordon — one in Ann Arbor, one at Carnegie Hall — marked his homecoming after 15 years in Europe.

Vanguard proprietor Lorraine Gordon cites a 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.'"

Weiss says he agrees. "Griff was fun to be around. He listened closely to what the other musicians played and enjoyed listening to the struggle. His eyes would light up, and he'd smile that big smile when he heard me wrestle with something. He was along for the ride. Although he was deadly serious about making music on the bandstand, playing jazz for him was a positive, joyous experience. That feeling spread to everyone in the audience. He had the people, all the time." Weiss last spoke to Griffin five weeks before the leader's death.

In the words of Dee Dee Bridgewater, who 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," Bridgewater adds. Though writers invented the phrase "tough tenor" for Griffin and his few peers, Bridgewater calls him something else: "a true jazz angel."

Additional research provided by Alexander Hotz.