Johnny Griffin: Jazz from the French Countryside

Johnny Griffin, a veteran of jazz groups led by such greats as Lionel Hampton, Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk, is living the quiet life with his wife in the French countryside, 250 miles southwest of Paris and light-years from his native Chicago.

“The music scene here?” Mr. Griffin says, speaking by phone from his home in France. “It’s nothing but sheep and goats and cows. The nearest village is a mile away, and there are only 1,400 people there.”

Mr. Griffin, 62, gets a reprieve from the rural splendors Sunday when he comes to Piedmont Park for the Atlanta Jazz Festival’s Salute to Chicago. He’ll be accompanied by his quartet, plus fellow tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. It will be a reunion for the horn players, once schoolmates at DuSable High. It’s also the alma mater of tenor saxman Von Freeman, who also plays at Piedmont on Sunday.

Mr. Griffin’s rhythm section is the same as during his last visit, a series of May 1988 concerts at Nexus Theatre. During those concerts Michael Weiss proved an exciting, technically brilliant, yet sensitive pianist. Bassist Dennis Irwin was a melodic and reliable anchor. Young bebop disciple Kenny Washington propelled the group with his usual impeccable drumming.

Equally impeccable were the two-tenor “battles” Mr. Griffin and the late Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis pioneered in 1960, though Mr. Davis commented then that their collaboration was more of a contrast than a contest. Since then, Mr. Griffin has fronted bands with fellow tenor sax giant Joe Henderson. This weekend’s pairing with Mr. Jordan holds promise as well: Mr. Jordan, who has been touring and recording as a leader and sideman since 1957, shares a penchant for mercurial, inventive solos.

Mr. Griffin, once known as “Jonathan Swift” because of his fleet improvisations, continues to play with the creative fire that won him wide acclaim with Thelonious Monk’s band in the late 1950s.

Mr. Griffin still plays with a big, robust tone that lends itself to intimate ballads as well as searing flag-wavers. His broad, emotional style is the legacy of one of his early heroes. “When I was growing up, I wanted to play like Ben Webster,” he says. “Everybody would look at me askew, like ‘What?’ But he was my first primary influence, along with Johnny Hodges.”

In Europe since 1963, Mr. Griffin lived 10 years in Paris, seven in the Netherlands, and now another 10 years in his French country home. “I love it,” he says. “It’s keeping me alive, actually. Over here I have less tension.”

The continent offers Mr. Griffin respect respect as well as relaxation. “People here regard jazz as an art form,” he says. “Little villages have jazz concerts over here. In America, if you say ‘jazz’ to most people in little villages, they think of the Utah Jazz basketball team or Jazz perfume.”

– first published as “Tenor Saxman Johnny Griffin Wears His Emotions In His Horn,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 6, 1990

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