In the realm of jazz-a realm filled with colorful sobriquets and honorifics-Johnny Griffin's nickname
was one of the most accurate: The Little Giant.
Yes, Griffin was modest in height; in his hands the tenor saxophone seemed extra large. But when he put it to his lips, he blew with a tone that dwarfed many of his contemporaries, and with such agility and exuberance that he spent his career tagged with a “fastest gun” reputation. But none of that would have mattered, nor earned him the undying respect of peers like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Roy Haynes, if his music did not also carry a rare balance of exuberance and ease. It was a sound also brimming with a distinct, dominant flavor: the blues.
Griffin had little choice. He was born in 1928 immersed in the blues of South Side Chicago, growing up in a day when no black music—sophisticated big bands or solo street musicians—grew far from the roots. As a teen, he benefited from instruction at DuSable High, starting on clarinet and moving to alto, and then tenor saxophone. At 17, he was on the road with the Lionel Hampton band. At 19, he was deep under the spell of bebop even as his star began to rise in the world of rhythm and blues. He formed a jump band with fellow Hamptonite, trumpeter Joe Morris and recorded for Atlantic Records. By 1951, he was playing baritone sax in a band led by the great tenorman Arnett Cobb.
A two-year stint in the Army preceded his arrival on New York’s fertile jazz scene. His blend of bebop ferocity and downhome feel caught the ear of many, including Thelonious Monk who recommended him to his producer at Riverside Records, Orrin Keepnews. But Blue Note jumped first, recording three albums with Griffin as leader in 1956 and ’57, bringing him critical attention and secure footing in the jazz world.
The next year Keepnews got his chance to record Griffin. The tracks on this disc cover a twenty-year period from 1958 to ’78, mostly before Griffin’s 1963 move to Europe. Together, they represent many facets of his musical persona: the tough blower of the blues and the big band soloist. The master of texture and mood and the speed demon.