Friday, November 9, 2007

Q&A: Johnny Griffin

Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin is one of the last living pioneers of bebop. Bay Area jazz writer Andrew Gilbert interviewed him by phone in 1999. Mr. Griffin spoke from his home in the French countryside.

I am pleased to present their conversation here.

Griffin has recorded with Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Chet Baker and Wes Montgomery, to name just a few. To understand how he earned a rep as “the world’s fastest saxophonist,” put your ear to “It’s All Right With Me” from his 1956 Blue Note album, “Introducing Johnny Griffin.” I’m streaming that track on my Vox audio stash. Click here to listen.
ANDREW GILBERT: You went from playing in Capt. Walter Dyett’s DuSable High School big band in Chicago to sitting in Lionel Hampton’s saxophone section next to Arnett Cobb. That’s pretty heady stuff for a 17-year-old.

JOHNNY GRIFFIN: You have to remember, our school would always be up amongst the leaders in the school contests in the state of Illinois. And this is playing classical music, mostly little black kids.

I’m just showing you Capt. Dyett would take these kids off the street and take care of business. He didn’t want you to waste his time. If you were a drag, he would mince no words, going through some terrible language, and he might throw his baton at your head.

But his courses were fantastic. He transcribed arrangements from Ellington and Lunceford or whoever. He was a father-like figure to us. Very stern, no nonsense, a real disciplinarian, but fair. The man was fair.

GILBERT: When Hamp recruited you for the band, you were playing alto. How did you end up on tenor?

GRIFFIN: Well, I graduated from school on Thursday, and on Sunday I was at the theater on the stage jamming with Arnett Cobb. I joined the band and the next week, when I was walking on the stage in Toledo, Ohio, I still had my alto. And the late Gladys Hampton said, “Junior, where’s your tenor saxophone? You’re playing tenor in this band.”

That’s what I wanted to play anyway, so I had to go back to Chicago to find a tenor, and I did, an old Conn, and I rejoined the band two days later.

GILBERT: Did you try to establish a reputation as the fastest tenor?

GRIFFIN: No, I think that started with a journalist. I remember I read one of those first articles, calling me the fastest tenor in the west. See, we would have these jam sessions all the time, and I think it was mainly the nervous energy I had.

I still like to play fast, but I like to play ballads too. And nobody’s interested in me playing ballads. But it doesn’t bother me one way or another. The main thing for me is the music itself and the musicians I’m playing with. And the acceptance of the public at large.

GILBERT: Your most famous stint with Monk was at the Five Spot in 1958 when you replaced Coltrane in his quartet. But you had been friends for years before. When did you first meet?

GRIFFIN: I met Monk in 1948, through Elmo Hope and Bud Powell. Those three pianists were like my higher education.

Joe Morris and I needed a pianist for our band, and Bennie Harris, the trumpeter, said he knew this little cat up in the Bronx, Elmo Hope. With Elmo you automatically gained Bud and Thelonious, because they were like the three musketeers. They adopted me and really threw me into the New York jazz society.

Monk and I met up later when I got out of the military and was back in Chicago in 1955. Wilbur Ware called me up and said Monk was at the Beehive and needed a sax player. I didn’t even know he was in town. I went over there and played with him for a week and it was like old times.

GILBERT: The documentary “Straight No Chaser” portrayed Monk as withdrawn and distant, sort of the archetypical weird genius. Does that jibe with the person you knew?

GRIFFIN: My relationship with Thelonious was one of having fun. We’d hang out, go to Art Blakey’s house after the gig and sit up and argue all night about anything.

Thelonious was himself 100 percent, and I loved him. I loved his music, I loved playing with him and I loved his sense of humor. People always look at Monk, saying he was so weird. That’s bullshit. If Monk didn’t know you, he always had that look, like a black king. Like Jomo Kenyatta. But under that demeanor was a comedian.

He wouldn’t have long conversations. While a musician was running off his mouth, blah blah blah, Monk would wait for everything to get quiet, and he would say two or three words and destroy everything that had happened conversationally. Just shoot it down and walk away.

And everybody’d be looking at his back as he walked away – “What was that?”

GILBERT: Your sessions with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis are some of the great tenor duels on record. What made your partnership with Jaws so effective?

GRIFFIN: He had a completely different way of playing than I did. I was amazed at what he could do. He was doing things I would never have thought of trying because he played so unorthodox that he made it his own.

At certain times we were supposed to be having these battles, but it could never be like a cutting contest, like I would have with Sonny Stitt or Wardell [Gray], because we played so differently.

GILBERT: After years of living in Paris, was it hard getting used to the chateau lifestyle out in the country?

GRIFFIN: When I left Paris in 1973, I went to a little village outside Rotterdam, and that kind of got me into the country. I liked getting out of hotel rooms and apartments.

Then when I moved back to France I had some French friends who lived over in the southwest above Bordeaux. I liked it out here with the farmers and the space. Good wine and good food, and it’s peaceful. ...

When I got to Europe, the treatment that I received was so fresh. They gave us the same respect classical musicians have in America. The Europeans have studied your life. They can tell you where you went to school, who you played with. The Japanese too.

Americans take jazz for granted. I mean, when you say “jazz” to the average American, they think you’re talking about the Utah basketball team, or some house of prostitution in New Orleans. They never really see it as an art form, not the majority.

So when I came here, I got addicted to the feel. And here I am in the middle of France, still addicted.

No comments: