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Fleet Jazz Saxophonist Johnny Griffin Dies

Johnny Griffin performs in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in the summer of 2007.
Robert Vos
/
AFP/Getty Images
Johnny Griffin performs in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in the summer of 2007.

Jazz musician Johnny Griffin, once billed as "the world's fastest saxophonist," has died of undisclosed causes at his home in France. He was 80.

Known as the "Little Giant," Griffin stood just under 5 1/2 feet. It never hindered him, though, from becoming one of the strongest saxophonists of the post-bebop tradition.

Born in Chicago in 1928, Griffin was one of many jazz giants to be trained in the music program at DuSable High School, where Captain Walter Dyett was the music director. After meeting bandleader and percussionist Lionel Hampton in a jam session, the 17-year-old Griffin was invited to tour with Hampton's orchestra.

After a brief stint with the U.S. Army, Griffin returned to Chicago, where word spread of his talent. He moved to New York City with a record deal in place, and soon replaced John Coltrane in the quartet of pianist Thelonious Monk.

"I found it difficult at times — I mean, difficult," Griffin said in an interview for NPR's Jazz Profiles. "I'm enjoying playing with him, enjoying playing music, but when I'm playing my solos, for instance, the way his comping is so strong, playing his own music, that it's almost like you're in a padded cell. I mean, trying to express yourself, because his music, with him comping, is so overwhelming; it's almost like you're trying to break out of a room made of marshmellows."

As the economic climate for jazz began to decline in the U.S. during the 1960s, Griffin was among the many American jazz musicians who found Europe more receptive. For personal and economic reasons, he moved to France in the early 1960s, returning to the U.S. only to perform.

"My French is terrible, but I can make it," Griffin said. "You know what I am? I'm from the Southeast side of Chicago. I just live here. And I enjoy my living here. I enjoy it. No reservations."

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Patrick Jarenwattananon