Johnny Arnold Griffin III (saxophonist) was born on April 24, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois and passed away on July 25, 2008 in Mauprevoir, France.
Griffin studied music at DuSable High School in Chicago under Walter Dyett, starting out on clarinet before moving on to oboe and then alto sax. While still at high school at age 15, Griffin was playing with T-Bone Walker in a band led by Walker’s brother.
Alto saxophone was still his instrument of choice when he joined Lionel Hampton’s big band three days after his high school graduation, but Hampton encouraged him to take up the tenor, playing alongside Arnett Cobb. He first appeared on a Los Angeles recording with Hampton’s band in 1945 at age 17.
By mid-1947, Griffin and fellow Hampton band member Joe Morris had formed a sextet made up of local musicians, including George Freeman,where he remained for the next two years. His playing can be heard on various early Rhythm and Blues recordings for Atlantic Records. By 1951 Griffin was playing baritone saxophone in an R&B sextet led by former bandmate Arnett Cobb.
After returning to Chicago from two years in the Army, Griffin began establishing a reputation as one of the premiere saxophonists in that city. Thelonious Monk enthusiastically encouraged Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records to sign the young tenor, but before he could act Blue Note Records had signed Griffin.
He joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers in 1957, and his recordings from that time include a memorable album joining together the Messengers and Thelonious Monk. Griffin then succeeded John Coltrane as a member of Monk’s Five Spot quartet; he can be heard on the albums Thelonious in Action and Misterioso.
Griffin was leader on his first Blue Note album Introducing Johnny Griffin in 1956. Also featuring Wynton Kelly on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums, the recording brought Griffin critical acclaim.
A 1957 Blue Note album A Blowin’ Session featured him with fellow tenor players John Coltrane and Hank Mobley. He played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers for a few months in 1957, and in the Thelonious Monk Sextet and Quartet (1958). During this period, he recorded a set with Clark Terry on Serenade To a Bus Seat featuring the rhythm trio of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones.
At this stage in his career, Griffin was known as the “fastest tenor in the west”, for the ease with which he could execute fast note runs with excellent intonation. Subsequent to his three albums for Blue Note, Griffin did not get along with the label’s house engineer Rudy Van Gelder, he recorded for Riverside Records. From 1960 to 1962 he and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis led their own quintet, recording several albums together.
Move to Europe
He went to live in France in 1963, moving to the Netherlands in 1978. Apart from appearing regularly under his own name at jazz clubs such as London’s Ronnie Scott’s, Griffin became the “first choice” sax player for visiting US musicians touring the continent during the 60s and 70s. He briefly rejoined Monk’s groups (an Octet and Nonet) in 1967.
Griffin and Davis met up again in 1970 and recorded Tough Tenors Again ‘n’ Again, and again with the Dizzy Gillespie Big 7 at the Montreux Jazz Festival. In 1965 he recorded some albums with Wes Montgomery. From 1967 to 1969, he formed part of The Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band, and in the late 70s, recorded with Peter Herbolzheimer And His Big Band, which also included, among others, Nat Adderley, Derek Watkins, Art Farmer, Slide Hampton, Jiggs Whigham, Herb Geller, Wilton Gaynair, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Rita Reys, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Grady Tate, and Quincy Jones as arranger. He also recorded with the Nat Adderley Quintet in 1978, having previously recorded with Adderley in 1958.
On July 25, 2008, Johnny Griffin died of a heart attack at the age of 80 in Mauprévoir, near Availles-Limouzine, France. He had lived there for the past 24 years. His last concert, July 21, 2008 was played in Hyères, France.