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Johnny Griffin

Johnny Griffin

American musician

John Arnold Griffin III (April 24, 1928[1] – July 25, 2008) was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. Nicknamed "the Little Giant" for his short stature and forceful playing, Griffin's career began in the mid-1940s and continued until the month of his death. A pioneering figure in hard bop, Griffin recorded prolifically as a bandleader in addition to stints with pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Art Blakey, in partnership with fellow tenor Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and as a member of the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band after he moved to Europe in the 1960s. In 1995, Griffin was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.

Early life and career

Griffin studied music at DuSable High School in Chicago under Walter Dyett, starting out on clarinet before moving on to oboe and then alto saxophone. While still at high school at the age of 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 the age of 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 early rhythm and blues recordings for Atlantic Records. By 1951, Griffin was playing baritone saxophone in an R&B septet led by former bandmate Arnett Cobb.

After returning to Chicago from two years in the Army, Griffin began to establish a reputation as one of the premiere saxophonists in that city. Thelonious Monk enthusiastically encouraged Orrin Keepnews of the Riverside label to sign the young tenor, but before he could act Blue Note had signed Griffin.

He joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1957, and his recordings from that time include an 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's unique style, based on an astounding technique, included a vast canon of bebop language. He was known to quote generously from classical, opera and other musical forms. A prodigious player, he was often subjected to and victorious at "cutting sessions" (a musical battle between two musicians) involving a legion of tenor players, both in his hometown Chicago with Hank Mobley and Gene Ammons, and on the road. Diminutive, he was distinctive as a fashionable dresser, a good businessman, and a well-liked bandleader to other musicians.

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