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Johnny Griffin At The Village Vanguard

On July 25, 2008, only a few days after the release of the album Smokin' Sax and before a date to promote it, saxophonist Johnny Griffin died at age 80 at his chateau in Availles-Limouzine, France.

He had lived in Europe for 45 years. Every spring, though, "Griff" would come home for a birthday tour, stopping in Chicago at the Jazz Showcase and, for many years, in New York at the Village Vanguard. Griffin made fast, exacting bebop lines seem easy, and he was hip before you were born. Here, he performs a set on May 7, 2000, at the Vanguard, hosted by his friend Dee Dee Bridgewater on JazzSet.

John Arnold Griffin III was born in Chicago in 1928. He studied woodwinds at DuSable High School. Capt. Walter Dyett (1901-69) led the music program there, and turned out many who set the standards in jazz: Among the saxophonists were Gene Ammons, Eddie Harris, Von Freeman and Griffin.

On tour, orchestra leader Lionel Hampton heard Griffin play alto sax at DuSable and hired him three days out of high school. More than a decade later, after a stint in the Army, Griffin succeeded John Coltrane on tenor in the Thelonious Monk Quartet. In the 1950s and '60s, Griffin recorded on the Riverside label in big bands, small groups and hot tenor battles with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis.

Then the jazz business started to decline, and Griffin moved to Europe in 1963. He first came home in 1978 with fellow expatriate saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Gordon was tall, Griffin "the Little Giant" was short, and both had a lot of personality. On Sept. 23, 1978, Gordon recorded the album Live at Carnegie Hall with Griffin as a guest on "Blues Up and Down" and "Cake." A handsome publicity poster for that Carnegie Hall concert still hangs on the wall at the Vanguard.

One day earlier, the two men had played the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, where pianist Michael Weiss saw Griffin for the first time, never dreaming he would become the older musician's pianist. Weiss says he does remember a roof-raising show — "The people were going nuts!" he says — and imagines Griffin's pleasure at his U.S. reception after 15 years in Europe.

After two remarkable decades on the bandstand together, Weiss recalls how Griffin listened to his guys: "His eyes would light up when he heard me wrestle with something in a solo," he says. "He was along for the ride."

Johnny Griffin belongs in the inner circle of jazz as one of the "tough tenors." Tough as in confident, aggressive, fast — some said the world's fastest — and as in warm, strong and tender. He always dressed the part and could tell a mean joke. There's humor in his horn, too, reaching out to say that if you don't pay attention, you're going to miss something.

Thanks for this set to Lorraine Gordon, Bret Primack and GMN Plus.

Copyright 2008 WBGO

Becca Pulliam