[JPL] Happy Birthday Johnn Griffin

Lazaro Vega wblv.wblu.fm at gmail.com
Mon Apr 24 19:37:19 EDT 2006

Musicians Still Hear Paris' Call

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
By Sebastian Rotella Los Angeles Times


The Little Giant comes back to town on a winter day the color of cobblestones.

It's a three-hour trip to Paris by car and fast train from the village
where he lives southwest of the capital. After a childhood on the
South Side of Chicago, a career forged in the smoke and din of jazz
dens the world over, he has become a country gentleman.

Once, a crowd might have been waiting at Montparnasse station. When he
first toured Europe four decades ago, he marveled at the photographers
who turned out at airports as if he were an ambassador.

Not today. He stands on the emptying platform: a short, grandfatherly
77-year-old bundled against the chill of the cavernous hall, a wool
cap pulled over his ears and down to his glasses. He carries a small
suitcase. He's here for another doctor's appointment to repair the
damage of a stroke, heart ailments, years of night work and hard

"I've been in the hospital so many times," he says. "I was falling
apart. ... I saw this heart doctor in Poitiers. He told me: 'My advice
to you is go back home, put your horn in the closet and you're
finished blowing.' "

Johnny Griffin, a.k.a. the Little Giant, is a titan of the tenor
saxophone. He has played with the best of them: Thelonious Monk, Art
Blakey, Lester Young. Jazz books invariably mention his reputation as
the fastest saxophone player of them all.

He grumbles a bit about that label, a mischievous grin lighting up his
weather-beaten face.

"That stuck with me, so I shut up. Got the publicity. Why do they
always say that? 'Fastest gun in the West.' If it's a ballad, I play
it slow. I didn't always play fast."

The taxi rolls into the Saint-Germain-des-Pres neighborhood on the
Left Bank. Griffin stares at streets thick with memories, melodies,
ghosts: the site of the now-defunct Blue Note, where a triumphant gig
in 1962 set the stage for his move overseas. Le Chat Qui Peche, a club
where he had some great shows and courted his Dutch wife. The Hotel La
Louisiane, where the scent of red beans and rice filled the halls and
his neighbor during his first months in Paris was the brilliant,
tormented pianist Bud Powell.

Powell's friendship with Francis Paudras, a fan who took him in and
helped him fight his physical and mental demons, inspired the 1986
film " 'Round Midnight," about expatriate jazz musicians. Griffin got
to know Powell and Paudras and moved with them from La Louisiane to a
notorious nightlife district.

"In Pigalle, I lived right across from Bud Powell and Francis
Paudras," Griffin says. "Third-floor apartments. I could step over my
balcony and be on their balcony. ... I was cooking on a little pad on
my dresser. When I met my wife, she made me move."

Leaving his suitcase with the maitre d', Griffin maneuvers laboriously
into a seat in a restaurant on the narrow Rue Saint Benoit des
Saints-Peres near the former Club-Saint-Germain, another jazz haunt.
Then he gets up again.

"Gotta get my pills," he says with a sigh. "Old folks."

Although they don't know exactly who he is, the waiters and waitresses
treat him with gentle deference. They sense that he represents a
remnant of the history of the neighborhood, a musical Mohican.

"Have you got a good Bordeaux?" He peers slyly over the menu. "C'est
bon? You sure? Let me look at your face. ... Yeah, OK. I can trust

Properly fortified, he tries to explain the allure of Paris for so
many American jazz musicians during much of the 20th century.

"I made more money here," he says. "Bought me a big house out there
where I'm living. Bought houses in other places, sold 'em."

But it was more than the money. The French have always venerated jazz
as an art form on par with classical music. For black artists who had
endured the humiliation of Jim Crow laws touring the South, the sting
of racism was softer across the Atlantic. As the character played by
Dexter Gordon puts it in " 'Round Midnight," "No cold eyes in Paris."

Griffin recalls: "I liked the attitude of the people. They listened to
the music. And the people liked me. It was not that they didn't
appreciate the music in America. Because they did. That's where the
music comes from. But it was such a hell of an experience. ...

"The people were friendly. Even if I didn't speak the language, I
could tell if somebody was not being friendly. I could hear it. Being
a musician, I had that kind of ear for people being friendly or what."

The expatriate tradition here dates to Sidney Bechet, the
swashbuckling clarinetist and saxophonist whose first foray ended in
1929 when he and a banjo player got into a gunfight that wounded three
Bechet was deported, but he returned after World War II, established
his band at the Theatre du Vieux Colombier and died a national hero in
1959, honored with a street, a statue and the nickname "Le Dieu" --
The God.

Other pilgrimages were shorter and less violent. Coleman Hawkins
became a tenor godfather after a four-year visit in the 1930s when "he
was really discovered and ... in turn, found himself," according to
the liner notes of his 1955 album, "The Hawk in Paris." After Miles
Davis played the postwar clubs, romanced an actress and hung out with
existentialist philosophers, he said Paris had changed him forever.

Billy Strayhorn, the gifted composer and collaborator with Duke
Ellington, recorded one of his few piano albums here in 1963.
Strayhorn kept a separate address book for his beloved Paris, whose
magic he evoked in "Lush Life," the sweetest of sad songs:

A week in Paris will ease the bite of it
All I care is to smile in spite of it

The image could not sustain the reality. The music began to suffer in
the 1970s, just as it did elsewhere. American artists ran into tax
issues, union hassles, resentment from French counterparts.

Europe is no longer the jazz mecca it was, but it still helps pay the
bills. Many Americans make a living by dividing their performance
schedules between the U.S. and European circuits.

And, although in smaller numbers and with lower expectations,
expatriates keep moving to Paris. Chasing the music and the mystique.

Griffin talks about his children and grandchildren scattered around
the U.S. Some took up music, others didn't, maybe because he pushed
too hard. He doesn't dwell on regrets. Despite the dire diagnosis that
his blowing days were over, he still performs now and then thanks to
the care of a doctor from Marseilles, an amateur jazz musician.

But in general, Griffin is content in the country house where he's
lived for 21 years, cultivating his vegetable garden a la Voltaire,
although a gardener does the actual work these days.

"I don't miss anything," he says. "Right now, it's hard to get me to
leave home. ... I haven't been everywhere, but I have been a lot of
places. The Orient. Scandinavia. I've been to Russia. I've been to
Turkey. Haven't been to Egypt. Wait a minute, I have been to Egypt. I
remember going across the desert and seeing the Pyramids."

After the long, late lunch, he gets into a taxi. He will spend the
night at the home of an American friend. Looking tired as the cab
cruises into the dusk, Griffin recounts an anecdote about trying to
persuade the solemn, introverted Thelonious Monk to tell a drummer to
keep it down during his sax solos.

"I can still see all those cats," he says wistfully. "They are gone,
but I can still see them like they were walking around here."

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