by Bob Bernotas
A few years ago a new recording came out
that showcased five young tenor saxophonists. The album's title, inspired, no
doubt, by a desire to cash in on the "young lions" craze so much in
vogue, anointed its youthful stars as "young tough tenors."
Well, there used to be a time when it meant something to be called a "tough tenor." It wasn't just a title your record label bestowed upon you. You had to serve your time on the frontlines of jazz, locking horns nightly with cats called Illinois, Sonny, Jug, Dexter, Wardell, Lockjaw. And when you finally earned the rank, the other tough tenors-not record producers or agents or publicists or critics-let you know.
Johnny Griffin won his "tough tenor" stripes in crack regiments like the Lionel Hampton big band, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and the Thelonious Monk quartet. In the early 1960s he co-led a quintet alongside that underrated monster of the tenor saxophone, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis. Then, in 1963, he emigrated to Europe and immediately became a fixture on the continent's thriving jazz scene. Griffin did not return to the States until 1978, when he was coaxed back for a guest appearance at fellow emigre Dexter Gordon's Carnegie Hall triumph.
Now, every April, the 65-year old Chicago Southsider makes an annual trip to the US, a highlight of which is a week-long birthday gig (April 24) at Chicago's Jazz Showcase, either preceded or followed by a week in New York. When he's not on tour, Griff enjoys his idyllic life in the French countryside, two hundred fifty miles outside of Paris. "It takes me almost an hour to drive to the nearest train station," he laughs.
How did you get started in music?
My father had played cornet, although I never saw him play it. I found his mouthpiece when I was a kid. I used to buzz it. And my mother played piano and sang in the church choir for different functions. So there was always music in the house, jazz, gospel, or whatever. Especially jazz records.
I began to study piano when I was about six. Then I studied Hawaiian steel guitar for a few years. I started on clarinet in high school when I was 13, all the clarinets, oboe, and English horn, then alto saxophone and then tenor saxophone.
That was at DuSable High School in Chicago.
Yeah, under bandmaster Walter Dyett. He made me play the clarinets first. I didn't want to play clarinet, but it's a good thing I did. Clarinet, to me, is the papa of the modern reed family. And he made me start playing oboe because the oboist graduated from school and he had this program of some music by Ravel. He needed an oboist in the band, which was good. It gave me another insight.
But you really wanted to play the saxophone.
My grammar school graduating class in 1941 had a little party for 13 or 14 year-old kids. [Trumpeter] King Kolax's band played for the party and Gene Ammons was playing tenor saxophone with the band. And that's when I said, "That's it!" Just like that, tunnelvision ever since.
Ben Webster was my first favorite, then I went to Johnny Hodges, 'cause I tended to play alto like a tenor anyway. Then, of course, Pres, Charlie Parker, and Don Byas, a master. And then I was influenced by Dexter and Wardell Gray and Lucky Thompson. But I was also influenced by trumpet players, pianists, the whole gamut. I mean, Charlie Christian influenced me, Jimmy Blanton. So everything that I heard musically has influenced me one way or the other.
I was playing alto before the bandmaster actually let me play alto in the school dance band. Outside of school, I started playing with T-Bone Walker when I was 15 years old. T-Bone's brother had a big band and T-Bone was the star of the show. We played the off-nights in the large nightclubs on the South Side of Chicagoóthe Rum Boogie, the DeLisa, and the El Dorado.
Walter Dyett was a big influence on you, then.
He was a big influence on Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Bennie Green, John Gilmore, Clifford Jordan, Pat Patrick, Charles Davis, everybody who went to that school. He was a real disciplinarian with the band. He could become a father-like figure in a way, too, with his kids.
Well, you can see the results.
Right. I graduated from high school on a Thursday and I was playing with Lionel Hampton's band on Sunday. Hamp had come by my school for some reason-I think it was a pep assembly for something, I can't remember-in about January or February, 1945. He brought [pianist] Milt Buckner and Herbie Fields with him. Herbie Fields was a clarinetist and alto saxophonist. [Griff likes to accent the second syllable: "sax-AH-phonist."] The bandmaster had me jam with Herbie and Milt Buckner and Hamp at the school.
At that time Hamp picked up the late Jay Peters to work with the band, but Jay got drafted into the service a couple of months later. So when Hamp came back to Chicago in June to play the Regal Theater he needed another saxophone player and he looked for me. That's when I transferred from alto to tenor.
All along I'd played with the band on alto and when the band left at the end of the week to go to Toledo, Ohio, I took my alto with me. I had always wanted to play tenor, but my bandmaster said, "Oh, the tenor's too large." I was walking on the stage at the theater in Toledo and the late Gladys Hampton stopped me and said, "Junior, where is your tenor saxophone? What are you doing with that alto?" I said, "What do you mean tenor?" She said, "You're playing tenor in the band." So I went back to Chicago and found an old Conn and rejoined the band.
You played in the Army band during the early 1950s, didn't you?
Saved my life. I had orders to go to Korea. Seven other young men who went in with me, Afro-American kids, all died. I had my orders to go with them, too.
What happened was, when the battalion was graduating I already had my orders to go to FECOM, which was Far East Command, to go to Korea. On the bulletin board in the orderly room they asked anyone with any talent to put on a little act or something for a show for the officers. The officers were graduating and having a party.
So I knew some soldiers who could play a little bit, and we got together a little group and got on the show. And a colonel there was stoned out of his mind. "Put that boy in the band," he said, the Army band in Hawaii. Other than that, I probably would have been killed, too.
How did you join Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers?
He sent for me. I met Art Blakey when I was playing with Hamp's band and he was playing with the Billy Eckstine band. I had seen him with the band in 1944 when they came to Chicago, which shook up the world. We were both in LA in 1945, and somehow, somebody asked me to play this jam session at Billy Berg's in Hollywood. Art Blakey was the drummer and we had been tight ever since.
When I came out of the service he had gotten Wilbur Ware and Horace Silver to come and play with him, and he tried to get me to come with him. But I had just gotten home and I had just gotten married, so I said no. Then he had me come to do a record date with him at RCA. I think it was the music from My Fair Lady. That would have been back in 1957, and he demanded that I come join the band, which I did.
It was fun. Fun, fun, fun, all the time. As it was with Monk, too. It's funny, 'cause Art Blakey always wanted Monk to come and play with him in his band, and Monk wanted Art Blakey to come and play in his band, which was ridiculous.
And a year later, you joined Thelonious Monk's quartet.
I had known Monk for ten years. I met Monk through Elmo Hope and Bud Powell, who I had known for years. I used to go to Bud's house or Elmo's house and play with Monk. And I used to hang out with Monk. Even when I was with Art Blakey we used to hang out together after he finished down at the Five Spot.
Monk was one of the most influential and admired-by me-of all the musicians that I've ever known. He had such a rare sense of humor, not by overly verbalizing. He could say three or four words that could shatter an hour of malicious gabbing. He could shatter the whole conversation with just a thing that he would say, the cutting edge. He'd be walking along with that face, that facade like the Mau Mau, so the idiots wouldn't bother him. But behind that mask was a very warm, humorous person.
I'll tell you something he did for me one time. We were someplace and he said, "See, I can play like Art Tatum if I want." And I said, "Get out of here, Thelonious! Stop kidding around!" He said, "Well, check this out." He made a Tatumesque run on the piano and my eyeballs and my ears almost fell off of my head. He said, "But I don't need that." So he played what he had to play, that's all it is. He didn't need to be making flourishes and doing pianistic aerobics. He just played what he wanted to play and he did it perfectly. You never heard him uptight, man.
Many people fondly remember the "tough tenor" combo you and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis had in the early 1960s. For me, the great thing about that group was that each of you had his own identity. There was never any doubt which one of you was playing.
Exactly. We really had great contrasts in our styles. I could never understand how Jaws was playing. For years I was around him-he was like my big brother after a while. I could never understand how he'd do things. He put corks under some of the keys! I said, "Jaws, what're you putting corks-?" He said, "I don't need them, I don't need them."
He didn't use the keys, didn't need them! I'm always looking for a way to put more keys on it, but he didn't need 'em. He played more for sound than for notes. And strong. And that style he had, why no one could play that style. Sometimes we'd call him "Little Ben," referring to Ben Webster, but he was really his own man.
I was amazed at some things he'd do. I thought he was gonna chew up the mouthpiece sometimes. He did some athletic things, whatever, but the sounds coming out of that horn! I don't mean like "free jazz," nothin' like that, but what he could do! That book that Eddie Harris had out, intervallic exercises, why Jaws could do that with ease. And I know he never saw Eddie Harris' book, 'cause he was doing that before Eddie Harris ever put it down. Such strength! Wow!
But today, with some of the younger musicians, sometimes it's hard to tell them apart.
Yeah, I have trouble with that, too. I think it comes from the way the musicians have to learn their craft these days, being at the universities, the Berklee Schools of Music. The teaching that they give makes very fantastic technicians with fantastic abilities to play and to read. But you know, when I came up, and the other musicians like Jaws, Dexter, Wardell, Jug, jazz was not learned in the classroom. The "classroom" was playing in public, whether on some street corner, in the park, in some smoke-filled clubs or whatever. Or in big bands.
I think that you need an audience to bring the personality out of yourself. You need other people for that. That's why I hate to play in the studio, 'cause I don't have anyone to play to. When I play I like the vibrations of people, 'cause it helps me create. I want to see people, not microphones.
So I think that's why it's hard for you to tell most of these young cats apart, because they've more or less learned technically the same way. It's almost like having the same teacher. But while I had Dyett as my teacher, I never sounded like Gene Ammons or John Gilmore or Clifford Jordan or whoever. We learned how to play out in the street, I mean, in public.
You see, there are no clubs like that anymore. When I went to Europe in '63, there were clubs everywhere, from Harlem to Brooklyn, all over New York. Now you have four or five clubs and that's it. And then all these wonderful musicians, they have no place to play, which is a pity.
Why did you move to Europe?
Problems. Plus I had been well-received in Europe in the months before that. Coming back to New York I had family problems, government problems, tax problems. And the way that the supposed jazz critics were promulgating the avant-garde or "free jazz," I thought it was a bad joke. I thought it was a pity. I liked some of the musicians, but the playing was making me sick.
I had the chance to go back to Europe and be free without the pressures here, people telling me what I could do and what I couldn't do, the agents in New York. And racism. There was such a big difference.
Before I went, the record company, Riverside, said, "Go to Europe. Promote these records." "Go to Europe for what? I mean, New York, this is heaven." But I went to Europe and spent three months there and my eyes were opened. You know, America is very chauvinistic. "This is the world," that's what the soldiers say. "This is the world. The rest of it is nothin'," which is ridiculous. And being from the Middle West, you didn't hear people talking about Europe or Asia or anything. But there's some people over there, too. And musicians-especially now-over there.
Then I went back to Europe, 'cause Bud Powell was there and Kenny Drew was there. Kenny Clarke was there. Dexter was there. I had a big family over there. Sahib Shihab, Idrees Sulieman were there. Memphis Slim, the blues singer, was there. Art Taylor came over the same year that I did. He had been over there earlier. And a lot of musicians were coming over at that time.
In fact, at any given time I think there are more American musicians living in Europe than there are in America. They're always coming. Young cats that I don't even know, that I haven't met, but I keep meeting when I go to Paris because they're working. Well, the United States, you know what it's like here. Jazz music has a much higher profile in Europe than it does in America. It's really different there. I'm sorry to say it, but it's true. I've been coming back for 15 years and I really know it's true.
So in 1963, there was enough work for you in Europe?
Well, I worked six months at the Blue Note in Paris at a time. You could go outside of France to Belgium, Holland, Germany-the Germans started waking up to jazz-Italy, Spain, England, Scandinavia. So in that small area, there was a lot of music, a lot of venues to play. When I lived in Paris, it was the golden age of jazz there, at that time.
Is it still good today?
Yeah, really. I've had my compositions arranged for different bands. I played in Hamburg. I just did 10 titles there five months ago. I'm going to Stuttgart this summer with the band with five or six titles, to Frankfurt, to Cologne, to Munich, to Berlin. And then I'm going to be doing some ballads with a string orchestra in Heidelberg and some things in Holland with the Metropole Orchestra. And I'm doing 10, 11 concerts with the National Jazz Orchestra of France.
Then I have my groups that I work with, French and Italian musicians in France. When I go to Copenhagen, I work with Kenny Drew. [Note: Pianist and longtime expatriate Kenny Drew died in Copenhagen in August 1993.] So it's a good way to be bobbin' and weavin' through all this. Sure, it's a good life.
You did live in Holland for a while.
Seven years-my wife is Dutch. The weather ran me out of Holland, bad weather over there. But there's a lot of music in that little country, 14, 15 million people, because the government subsidizes the small clubs and the musicians straight away. They subsidize classical music, they subsidize jazz-not rock. And in France, you have a Minister of Culture, he sees that jazz gets its share of the money. There's that interest. You see jazz on television. You hear it, of course, on the radio. All the different FM stations have "jazz hour."
Unfortunately, that's very rare in the US.
This country's changed so much. When I grew up, we had music appreciation class for eight-, nine-year old kids. I mean, we had to listen to an hour of classical music every week. It's no more. I went back to DuSable High School where I learned music. They were honoring my late bandmaster, Dyett, and I had one wish to see the band room where I had studied. There was no band room, there was no music department. They cut it out!
And I can't tell you how many kids that program saved, kept off the streets, kept the kids busy doing something worthwhile. Why is that they always cut music out when they have any budgetary problems? They cut music out, like it's not necessary. They don't realize the importance of music for the emotional health of people. They're so busy commercializing everything. I think that every kid should be able to play an instrument, even if it only lasts one or two years. A little piano, a little something. It brings a sensitivity to the soul that will be missing later on if it's not offered.
You write most of your compositions on computer now. How did you get started doing that?
I was speaking with Dave Holland, the bassist, when he was doing this Philip Morris tour back about five or six years ago. He was talking about how he was using computers as a teaching device, also.
And then I went to Chicago and met my daughter's boyfriend. He plays drums now, I think, with some rock band, but he was working for some great securities company or something. They have to watch the markets all over the world and he was working on computers. He had this Mac in his house. This young man couldn't read a note as big as this building. But he was doing music for Porsche automobile commercials with the keyboard he had, 'cause he knew computers. And I got interested in it.
So I got me one. I play something on the piano and I write it into the computer. Or I play it in with the synthesizer-but usually I like to write it in-and play it back through the synthesizer and get all these different variations of sound. Synthesizers are OK for what they are. I'm an acoustic person, but this gives me a good idea how acoustic instruments would sound. And of course with the memory of the computer, which is fantastic, man, I can print all the music out and just hand it to the musicians, which is much better than my writing it out by hand. The computer just does it. With the software that they have now for composing, it's fantastic.
Then I've been talking to Jimmy Heath out at his house and now I've found some French musicians who are doing it, which really helped me a lot. It just grew. I can't wait to get back to it with the ideas that I have acquired just in these few weeks since I left home.
So France really is home to you, now. Do you think you'll ever move back to the US?
No. I feel good where I am. That's not to say that I would never come back after all, but the way I feel now, I don't see no reason to go anywhere. I love it where I am. It's heaven. I can't think of any better place to be, really.
I eat vegetables from my garden, fruit from my garden, and the people are nice around me. I have my music room with my piano, my computer, my synthesizer to play it back. That's my "rehearsal band." Of course, it's a safari when I have to go to work, but when I get back home, it's lovely.
* * *
Johnny Griffin still makes his annual birthday visit to the United States, with his week-long gigs in Chicago and New York. But he always returns to his beloved French countryside.
© Bob Bernotas, 1994; revised 1999. Used by permission.
All rights reserved.
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