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"The Little Giant"Copyright © 2008
Nicknamed "The Little Giant" for his diminutive size and lightning-fast facility on tenor saxophone, Johnny Griffin died at 80 in his adopted home of France.
The son of musicians, Griffin became one of numerous professional jazz artists to emerge from Chicago's DuSable High School. But by the time he entered high school he was already making his way as a musician on the city's South Side, working frequently with veteran guitarist T-Bone Walker. Three days after his high school graduation, Griffin joined Lionel Hampton's big band, beginning a five-year stretch on the road -- with Hampton, Joe Morris, Jo Jones and Arnett Cobb, among others.
In 1951, Griffin joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in Hawaii. Following his service, in 1953, he returned to Chicago, where he began playing informally with Thelonious Monk, a move that greatly influenced the second phase of his career. In 1957, he joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for a brief period and then Monk's quartet, before recording his debut as a leader -- A Blowing Session (Blue Note) -- an album that features John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Blakey. In 1958, Griffin began a relationship with Riverside Records, releasing a series of recordings that cemented his reputation as the fastest tenor player in the business.
In 1960, he established a popular two-tenor group with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis -- a relationship that lasted for more than 20 years. The '60s also saw Griffin establish a love affair with Europe, moving to Paris in 1963 and later to Holland before settling permanently in France. In addition to a trio with Davis and Cobb, he became a regular in the popular Kenny Clarke-Francy Boland Big Band.
A popular guest artist until the end of his life, Griffin also continued to lead his own bands, as well as co-operative projects like Three Generations of Tenor Saxophone.