Johnny Griffin, born on April 24, 1928, in Chicago, Illinois, and passing away on July 25, 2008, in Availles-Limouzine, France, was an influential American jazz tenor saxophonist. Nicknamed “the Little Giant” due to his small stature and big sound, Griffin was renowned for his virtuosity, speed, and creativity, earning him the title “the fastest tenor in the west.”
Growing up in Chicago, Griffin was exposed to jazz at a young age, taking up the alto saxophone before switching to tenor saxophone. He honed his skills at DuSable High School under the tutelage of Walter Dyett, who also mentored other notable jazz musicians such as Gene Ammons and Von Freeman. Griffin started his professional career at the age of 17, playing with Lionel Hampton’s big band.
In the 1950s, Griffin became a significant figure in the hard bop movement. He joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and later played with Thelonious Monk. He gained widespread recognition for his work with Monk, which showcased his technical prowess and ability to play at breakneck tempos.
Griffin’s collaboration with fellow tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis in the early 1960s resulted in a series of memorable albums, including “Blues Up and Down” (1961) and “Tough Tenors” (1962). These recordings highlighted the pair’s complementary styles and competitive, yet playful, musical interplay.
In 1963, Griffin moved to Europe, where he found greater artistic freedom and a thriving jazz scene. He settled in France and continued to tour and record extensively, often collaborating with European musicians. During his time in Europe, Griffin became a respected elder statesman of jazz, mentoring younger musicians and contributing to the growth of the European jazz scene.
Despite living in Europe, Griffin maintained strong ties to the United States, occasionally returning for performances and recordings. In 1990, he received the prestigious French honor of Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, which recognized his significant contributions to the arts.
Johnny Griffin’s career spanned over six decades, during which he established himself as a leading figure in the world of jazz. His technical mastery, creative improvisations, and relentless work ethic have left an indelible mark on the genre and inspired generations of saxophonists.
Page last updated 3/19/2023.