Since Johnny Griffin's precocious professional debut with Lionel Hampton in 1945, his best work has been guided by spontaneity. One of the fastest and least inhibited of tenor men, Griffin loves the challenges and excitement of the jam session. Back in 1963, despite the solid reputation he had established as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and Thelonious Monk’s group (and as co-leader of a band with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis), Griffin felt forced to flee to Europe.
During the Sixties, Griffin was one of an elite corps of resident American jazzmen in Europe, a group that included Kenny Clarke, Arthur Taylor, Horace Parlan, Kenny Drew, and, of course, Dexter Gordon (“Dexter’s family to me,” he smiles). He had no trouble finding work there. He played in radio and television studio bands, was installed for long engagements in clubs such as the Blue Note in Paris, played in countless jazz festivals, and continued his recording career unabated. He did everything but return to the United States. And he missed it: “Europeans love jazz very much, but American audiences respond to the music in a really special way.”
Johnny Griffin’s triumphant homecoming in 1978, coming on the heels of Dexter’s, ended 15 years of exclusively expatriate life in Europe. The occasion was one of jazz’s happiest, most heartwarming events in memory. Griffin found himself playing to an entirely new generation of fans, while his older fans discovered the tenor saxophonist to be playing better than ever.
Johnny Griffin was born April 24, 1928 in Chicago. In his own words: “All I ever wanted to be was a jazz musician. My father had played a little cornet and my mother played piano and sang a little. We had a lot of 78 rpm records in the house. In the beginning I listened to Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, Don Byas and Lester Young. Then one day my cousins were having a party and somebody put on a 78 of Jay McShann, with Walter Brown singing “Hootie Blues.” And then there was an alto solo that knocked me dead. Like, crash, what is that?! Is that Pres?’ No, it was an alto. It was Charlie Parker. I wore that solo out on that record.”
“I started playing clarinet when I was 13 and saxophone when I was 14. Before that I had studied piano and steel guitar. I took classes in all the clarinets, oboe, and English horn. The bass clarinet was almost as tall as me.”