Jazz tenor sax legend Johnny Griffin died in France last Friday at the age of 80. He died in his home in a village about 150 miles west of Paris [either Availles-Limouzine or Mauprevoir, depending on who’s doing the telling] where he’d lived either the last 18 or 24 years. His death was quite sudden, coming just hours before he’d been scheduled to play a concert.
Born in Chicago, the “Little Giant” [he stood barely 5-1/2 feet tall] saw saxophonist Gene Ammons play at the age of 12 and decided that was what he was going to do. And he wasted no time doing it. Three days after high school graduation, he joined Lionel Hampton’s big band.
Griffin’s speed playing bebop quickly gained him the reputation of the “fastest gun in the West.” And indeed, Griffin himself said, “I like to play fast. I get excited, and I have to sort of control myself, restrain myself. But when the rhythm section gets cooking, I want to explode.” But his gift was far more than speed. In his excellent New York times obituary, Ben Ratliff says his “speed, control and harmonic acuity made him one of the most talented American jazz musicians of his generation.”
In this YouTube video, we get a taste of Griffin’s legendary speed—and grace. He is backed by John Critchinson on piano, Ron Mathewson on bass and Martin Drew on drums.
Here’s another piece, a brief solo that gives you a sense of another, less frenetic side of his music.
And now, those six degrees of separation? I didn’t start out to write about Johnny Griffin’s passing. I had actually pulled out a CD by French jazz saxophonist Olivier Temime. Marion and I had bought the disk from Temime at Le Petit Opportun, a tiny jazz cellar in Paris. We’d seen his quartet there one night and had been so impressed we went back the next night. We were equally impressed with the club, a true cellar with vaulted ceilings and multiple cramped rooms, some with extravagantly bad sight lines. On the wall behind the musicians on the bandstand was a hand lettered sign instructing people to refrain from smoking while the musicians were playing. Everyone, including the band, ignored it.
In doing a little research on Temime I came across his name in a report of Griffin’s passing. He was one of the musicians slated to play with Griffin the afternoon of his death.
I may yet write about sax player Olivier Temime one of these days. In the meantime, here’s a little taste of his music, a 2000 performance on France 3 TV with Wynton Marsalis, Herlin Riley, Pierre Boussaguet, Franck Avitabile and Eric Prost.