Jazz Master of the Month: John Arnold "Johnny" Griffin III

Nov 1, 2016

Johnny Griffin was a Chicago-born alto and tenor saxophonist. His masterful technique and speed as a bebop saxophonist earned him the title “The Fastest Gun in The West” — but because of his relatively short stature he was more fondly called “The Gentle Giant.” 

Griffin was recruited into the Lionel Hampton big band only days after graduating from high school. He had already gained professional experience at the age of fifteen, as primary saxophonist with Chicago blues master T. Bone Walker. Griffin became a force to be reckoned with when he toured extensively with pianist Thelonious Monk. He had also widened his recognition among horn players while spending time in Art Blakey’s Jazz messengers. He was quite impressed when he first heard Charlie Parker in the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, and he also incorporated the soulfulness of Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster of the Billy Ekstine big band.

In early 1950, Griffin enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed in Hawaii for two years. It was after completing his stint in the army and returning to Chicago that he spent several years with Thelonious Monk in different ensembles, all the way through the early 1980’s. He later formed groups with trumpeter Donald Byrd and baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams, collaborated with pianists Bud Powell and Elmo Hope, and recorded the now famous “A Blowin Session” for Blue Note Records with fellow saxophonists John Coltrane and Hank Mobley.

But Griffin grew weary of the U.S. and its apathy regarding jazz, and partly due to some tax problems, he became an expatriate. By 1963 he was living in Paris, France,and did many albums with European rhythm sections for the Storyville, Black Lion, and Steeplechase labels. He was also a charter member and chief soloist for many years in the Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band alongside American and Continental standouts. The year 1975 was an important one for Griffin, who was featured with the bands of Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie as documented in recordings of their sets at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He also collaborated with German saxophonist Klaus Doldinger and his fusion band Passport. In the late '70s, Griffin returned to the States to record for the Galaxy label, and toured with fellow expatriate tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon.

Griffin left Paris for the countryside of the Netherlands to live on a farm, and then headed to the Côte d'Azur in 1980. In 1986 he was a member of the Paris Reunion Band with Woody Shaw, Dizzy Reece, Slide Hampton, and Kenny Drew, making one album for the Sonet label. During his time in France, Griffin recorded for the Antilles and Verve labels, including The Cat in 1991 and Chicago, New York, Paris in 1994. On the weeks of his birthday, Griffin made regular appearances at the Jazz Showcase back home in Chicago. In his later years he collaborated with pianist Martial Solal and saxophonist Steve Grossman.

Griffin recorded well over fifty albums as a leader, and over forty albums as a sideman, not to mention countless live bootleg recordings including several recorded live at Baltimore’s Left Bank Jazz Society. 

In 2008, Griffin passed away at his home in France where he had lived for 24 years. His wife Mariam did not disclose a cause of death but he was 80 years old.