JJ 05/79: Johnny Griffin and the jazz life force

The saxophonist in conversation with Mike Hennessey. First published in Jazz Journal, May 1979


Johnny Griffin’s playing during a two-week engagement at the Ronnie Scott Club last February was a most eloquent and forceful reaffirmation of musical integrity. As with the music, so with the man. The Little Giant from the south side of Chicago is a direct, expressive, animated and transparently honest conversationalist.

He has no time for hypocrisy and he puts down people he regards as musical pretenders in a most affably derisive way – not with malice but with a kind of mischievous and gently mocking rationale: “Aw, come on – we know he’s kidding, he knows he’s kidding, so why do the critics act like he’s the new musical Messiah?” Then he adds, with that most infectious laugh: “But I’m not calling any names. I get into trouble everywhere I go when I open my big mouth!”

John Arnold Griffin III, now 51, is one of the most time-serving of the corps of American exiles in Europe. He left New York on May 19th 1963 to settle first in Paris. “I was always able to work in the States and I appeared at Birdland pretty regularly, but I couldn’t seem to get myself a more comfortable living standard. There was no guarantee that I could do it in Europe – but I felt like giving it a try; and a man has to do what he feels like doing.”

‘I’ve come to the conclusion that jazz is not for the masses but just for those people who are able to perceive it and look through the surface’

He has now established a permanent home in Bergambacht, Holland – where he lives with his Dutch wife, Miriam, and their daughter, Cynthia.

“Life in Europe really worked out beautifully. It has been an enriching experience and, apart from one or two lean moments, there has always been plenty of work. So I resolved that as far as going back to the States was concerned, I wasn’t going to ask them. They had to ask me. Everything had to be set up right – that’s why I waited. I wasn’t in any hurry because life in Europe was beautiful. I certainly wasn’t going to sneak back into the States with nobody knowing I’d been and gone!

“Dexter really set the pace. He was a giant when I was still in high school but it took America more than 30 years to discover him. Dexter went back in September 1977 and tore the place apart. I went over in the wake of all that goodwill.”

Dexter’s conquering hero return to the States had been set up by Woody Shaw’s wife, Maxine Gregg, and it was she who finally persuaded Griffin to play some US dates with a quartet.

He played 17 dates in the US over a six-week period from the middle of September last year – and he was acclaimed on a level which genuinely exceeded his expectations. “I had forgotten what American audiences are like. But, of course, they really respond to jazz. It’s their music, after all. I couldn’t even finish my solos before people were on their feet applauding. It was fantastic.”

The climax of the tour – after appearances at the Monterey and Ann Arbor festivals and a couple of recording dates for Galaxy — was a concert with Griff’s great friend and fellow exile, Dexter Gordon, at Carnegie Hall. The packed audience gave them a standing ovation.

“It was really overwhelming – and it made me wonder where all those beautiful people had been when I was living there and scuffling!”

While Griffin was delighted to see so many of his contemporaries working and still playing “the real music”, he was dismayed by the proliferation of jazz-rock and disco-jazz in the States.

“Once again, I don’t want to call any names – but that music is so sad. It has nothing to do with jazz. Well, let me qualify that – it has nothing to do with the music I’m into and I’ve always thought of what I do as jazz. I’ve come to the conclusion that jazz is not for the masses but just for those people who are able to perceive it and look through the surface of the music to what is inside.

You get all this talk about avant garde music, but who plays it apart from guys in a few lofts in New York and one or two guys in Europe? I can’t imagine them going into Harlem and playing that stuff. They’d get lynched…”

And as he warmed to this subject, Griffin got a little casual about his embargo on name-calling.

“I know there are some very good musicians involved in the avant garde movement. And I like a lot of the guys personally. But I cannot dig their music. I’ve given this a great deal of thought every since I heard Archie Shepp for the first time, every night for a month, during an engagement at the Chat Qui Peche in Paris. That band sounded as sad at the end of the month as it did at the beginning – but I understood even less.

‘…how can people take Ornette Coleman’s trumpet and violin playing seriously? Come on, that’s just ridiculous. Music is supposed to be beautiful’

“And how can people take Ornette Coleman’s trumpet and violin playing seriously? Come on, that’s just ridiculous. Music is supposed to be beautiful. Music is beauty. It shouldn’t  sound like a bad LSD trip – what’s wrong with having a beautiful sound on your instrument? OK, you can still play rough and aggressive as long as it’s making some musical sense and swinging. But some of that avant garde stuff is a negation of music. Listen, if cats like that had got up on the bandstand in New York 25 years ago the rhythm section would have walked off and they’d have been left up there by themselves.

“A lot of those cats just can’t play. And others can play, but can’t swing. Take Cecil Taylor. The cat cannot swing. Duke Ellington said it: ‘It don’t mean a thing’. You know the rest. OK, so that marks me down as a small-minded, fossilized musical thinker. But how can jazz all of a sudden go completely crazy and have no form?

There was no jazz before this avant garde mess that didn’t swing. All the music, from spirituals, to gospel, to the blues – all of it had swing in common. Look, I can go up on stage and make as much noise as any avant garde player, but I dare any of them to come up and swing.”

For all his disparagement of so-called new directions in jazz, Johnny Griffin has no fears about the future of the music. “Jazz is life – so long as there is life, there will always be jazz. There have always been critics who have been trying to kill jazz for as long as I can remember. But I’m still here and the cats like Dexter and Frank Foster and George Coleman are still here, blowing and swinging. And as long as guys swing, jazz cannot die.

“I’m still playing substantially what I was playing 20 years ago, and so is Dexter – but that’s our musical vocabulary, and we’re still talking the same musical language. I guess our playing has matured over the years, and certainly cats have found new ways of playing bass and drums, but fundamentally it’s the same music. If you listen to a solo that Lester Young made in the thirties the arrangement sounds dated and the rhythm section sounds dated, but what Pres plays sounds just as good and fresh now as it did then. Real jazz, real music, survives.”

For his American tour and for his stint at the Scott Club, Griffin used an all-American rhythm section which was something of a luxury because he has had to adjust to playing with Europeans most of the time. And, despite the great progress made by jazz musicians in Europe since Griff first settled on the continent, an adjustment, he says, is still necessary.

“Then again, I know plenty of black Americans from the ghettoes who can’t play jazz, can’t swing, can’t even keep time. No sense of rhythm at all. But I guess if you do have a musical gift, then New York is the best place to develop it. The atmosphere can really be stimulating. But the gap between American and European musicians really has narrowed tremendously.”

The respect that Europeans have for the musicianship of the leading American jazzmen was one of the factors which originally induced Johnny Griffin to make his home on the Continent.

When I interviewed him for the first time in 1965 he described the conditions of life in the United States as “deplorable” and said that the real problem was that jazz musicians were not respected and were not given credit for having any dignity.

Johnny recalls: “Musicians got angry with the public because they didn’t get the respect they deserved; there were tremendous social pressures – for white people as well as blacks; and clubs were closing down. Everyone was pessimistic and I suppose one product of that depressing period was the emergence of the avant garde extremists with all that anger and agony in their music. Now, though, conditions seem to have improved a great deal – and maybe this has something to do with the return of real music. Swinging music.”

Footnote: it has been pointed out since publication of this article that Maxine Gordon and Woody Shaw were never legally married although they were partners and had a son.