Remembering the 'Little Giant,' jazz saxophonist Johnny Griffin

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Johnny Griffin

Johnny Griffin (Michael Walker, Chicago Tribune / April 2, 2013)

Ask anyone who loves jazz to the name the top tenor saxophonist of all time, and he or she probably will answer in a flash.

To many, it's Sonny Rollins, at 82 still a giant. Or Gene Ammons, the long-gone, soulful player from the South Side of Chicago. Or Von Freeman or Fred Anderson, Ammons compatriots who helped define the Chicago sound and are sorely missed to this day.

To me, though, it always will be Johnny Griffin, the greatest tenor man I heard live in more than 40 years of concert going. The brilliance of his technique, the enormous scale of his sound and the visceral energy of his delivery have no parallel in all tenordom. In many ways, he summed up what the Chicago "tough tenor" sound was all about.

Though he stood just 5 feet, 5 inches tall, he was a colossus who richly deserved his nickname: "Little Giant."

So it's fitting that on Thursday evening Chicagoans will remember the great musician, who died in 2008 at age 80 in France, where he had lived since 1963. Pianist Michael Weiss, who toured with Griffin for roughly 15 years starting in the late 1980s, has pulled together a promising band that will pay homage to the master at the University of Chicago's Logan Center, on East 60th Street.

That's not far from DuSable High School, at 49th and Wabash, which Griffin considered the source of his achievements.

"People don't realize how important it is having a foundation like the one I got there," Griffin told me in 1993, referring to DuSable and its visionary bandmaster, Capt. Walter Dyett.

"He was one hell of a musician. He knew all the instruments, but he also was a strong man, a disciplinarian, a father figure. He would take no nonsense at all, he'd short-shrift anything disturbing in class.

"But that was good for the kids, because it gave them something, it gave them some support. Dyett taught dignity and honesty and, on top of that, music."

Thanks to Dyett, DuSable students such as Nat "King" Cole, Johnny Hartman, Dorothy Donegan, Freeman, Ammons, Griffin and many more enjoyed international careers. Lionel Hampton hired Griffin right out of DuSable, when the fledgling musician was all of 17 years old.

The teenaged tenor man caused a sensation in Hampton's band, igniting fireworks opposite Arnett Cobb in "Flying Home," the tour de force that had made a star of another Hampton tenorist, Illinois Jacquet.

But the swing music that Hampton cherished was changing, and Griffin wanted to get in on the new sound: bebop. So he moved to New York in the late 1940s and, after stint in the Army, again in the '50s to absorb this restless, revolutionary, harmonically complex music. That's when a talented young musician refashioned himself into a master, learning from inventors such as pianists Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Elmo Hope.

"Elmo, Bud and Thelonious really were like three brothers to me, and whenever I wasn't working, I'd just hang with them in New York, listening, studying," said Griffin in the interview.

"That was my university training, staying around those three musicians. Because I didn't want to sound like any other musician on tenor saxophone, so I spent my time around those guys and around Dizzy (Gillespie), who adopted me, and (trumpeters) Kenny Dorham and Fats Navarro and later on Clifford Brown.

"They were the ones who gave me a chance to peep at them and ask questions."

Not that the process was easy.

"That music was so tough that sometimes it would take me four or five months to understand something they were telling me about," added Griffin. "And then it suddenly would hit me: 'Oh, that's how those (chord) changes work.'"

Griffin indeed matched the virtuosity and musical depth of his mentors, as his recordings of the period show. Listen to his work on an album such as the aptly named "A Blowin' Session" from 1957, and you'll hear Griffin holding his own – and then some – alongside no less than saxophonists John Coltrane and Hank Mobley.

In concert, Griffin was even more thrilling, attaining tremendous velocity and clarity in uptempo pieces and uncommon tenderness and high romanticism in ballads.

What was it like to share a bandstand with him?

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