Griffin performing in 2007
|John Arnold Griffin III|
April 24, 1928|
Chicago, Illinois, U.S
|Died||July 25, 2008(aged 80)|
|Labels||Blue Note, Riverside|
|Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band|
John Arnold Griffin III (April 24, 1928 - July 25, 2008) was an American jazz tenor saxophonist. Nicknamed "the Little Giant" for his short stature and forceful playing, Griffin's career began in the early 1940s and continued until the month of his death. A pioneering figure in hard bop, Griffin recorded prolifically as a bandleader in addition to stints with pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Art Blakey, in partnership with fellow tenor Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis and as a member of the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band after he moved to Europe in the 1960s. In 1995, Griffin was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music. 
Griffin studied music at DuSable High School in Chicago under Walter Dyett, starting out on clarinet before moving on to oboe and then alto sax. While still at high school at the age of 15, Griffin was playing with T-Bone Walker in a band led by Walker's brother.
Alto saxophone was still his instrument of choice when he joined Lionel Hampton's big band three days after his high school graduation, but Hampton encouraged him to take up the tenor, playing alongside Arnett Cobb. He first appeared on a Los Angeles recording with Hampton's band in 1945 at the age of 17.
By mid-1947, Griffin and fellow Hampton band member Joe Morris had formed a sextet made up of local musicians, including George Freeman, where he remained for the next two years. His playing can be heard on various early Rhythm and Blues recordings for Atlantic Records. By 1951 Griffin was playing baritone saxophone in an R&B septet led by former bandmate Arnett Cobb.
After returning to Chicago from two years in the Army, Griffin began establishing a reputation as one of the premiere saxophonists in that city. Thelonious Monk enthusiastically encouraged Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records to sign the young tenor, but before he could act Blue Note Records had signed Griffin.
He joined Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1957, and his recordings from that time include a memorable album joining together the Messengers and Thelonious Monk. Griffin then succeeded John Coltrane as a member of Monk's Five Spot quartet; he can be heard on the albums Thelonious in Action and Misterioso.
Griffin's unique style, based on an astounding technique, included a vast canon of bebop language. He was known to quote generously from classical, opera and other musical forms. A prodigious player, he was often subjected to and victorious at "cutting sessions" (a musical battle between two musicians) involving a legion of tenor players, both in his hometown Chicago with the likes of Hank Mobley and Gene Ammons, and on the road. Diminutive, he was distinctive as a fashionable dresser, a good businessman, and a well-liked bandleader to other musicians.
Griffin was leader on his first Blue Note album Introducing Johnny Griffin in 1956. Also featuring Wynton Kelly on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums, the recording brought Griffin critical acclaim.
The album A Blowin' Session (1957) featured John Coltrane and Hank Mobley. He played with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers for a few months in 1957, and in the Thelonious Monk Sextet and Quartet (1958). During this period, he recorded a set with Clark Terry on Serenade to a Bus Seat featuring the rhythm trio of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones.
At this stage in his career, Griffin was known as the "fastest tenor in the west" for the ease with which he could execute fast note runs with excellent articulation. After three albums for Blue Note, Griffin, who did not get along with the label's house engineer Rudy Van Gelder, recorded for Riverside Records. From 1960 to 1962 he and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis led their own quintet, recording several albums together.
Griffin moved to France in 1963 and to the Netherlands in 1978. His relocation was the result of several factors, including income tax problems, a failing marriage and feeling "embittered by the critical acceptance of free jazz" in the United States, as journalist Ben Ratliff would write. Apart from appearing regularly under his own name at jazz clubs such as London's Ronnie Scott's, Griffin became the "first choice" sax player for visiting US musicians touring the continent during the 1960s and '70s. He briefly rejoined Monk's groups (an Octet and Nonet) in 1967.
Griffin and Davis met up again in 1970 and recorded Tough Tenors Again 'n' Again, and again with the Dizzy Gillespie Big 7 at the Montreux Jazz Festival. In 1965 he recorded albums with Wes Montgomery. From 1967 to 1969, he was part of the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band and in the late '70s recorded with Peter Herbolzheimer and His Big Band, which also included, among others, Nat Adderley, Derek Watkins, Art Farmer, Slide Hampton, Jiggs Whigham, Herb Geller, Wilton Gaynair, Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Rita Reys, Jean "Toots" Thielemans, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Grady Tate, and Quincy Jones as arranger. He also recorded with the Nat Adderley Quintet in 1978, having previously recorded with Adderley in 1958.
With Ahmed Abdul-Malik
With Nat Adderley
With Chet Baker
With Art Blakey
With James Carter
With the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland Big Band
With Tadd Dameron
With Dizzy Gillespie
With Bennie Green
With Philly Joe Jones
With Johnny Lytle
With Blue Mitchell
With Thelonious Monk
With Bud Powell
With A. K. Salim
With Ira Sullivan
With Clark Terry
With Wilbur Ware
With Randy Weston
With Wes Montgomery