Today’s the 93rd birthday anniversary of Johnny Griffin (1928-2008), the magnificent tenor saxophonist from Chicago known as “the Little Giant” for projecting behemoth sound and lightning velocity from his jockey-like frame. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard in 1990, and I’m appending the complete transcript, which initially appeared on the web on www.jazz.com shortly after Griffin passed away.
* * *
In conversation with johnny griffin
By Ted Panken
Can you recall your impressions when you arrived in New York for the first time in 1945 with Lionel Hampton?
I remember coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas and 125th Street with Lamar Wright, Junior, and looking at Harlem, and saying, “Is this New York?” Being from Chicago, there was always this competition—so the Chicagoans would have you believe—between New York and Chicago. Actually I was not impressed; I hadn’t been in mid-Manhattan where all the tall buildings were. That was like my first day of riding the train forever, and I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to bed.
Do you recall where the gig was?
I think we came in and played a ballroom. Not the Savoy; this was a one-nighter. Not the Amsterdam Ballroom. Oh my God, I forgot where. Anyway, I remember going to this ballroom to play, and George Hart, who was later Hamp’s road manager, was on the door and wouldn’t let me in.
He said, “Kid, where you goin’ with that horn?” I had this old Conn in this raggedy tenor case. They wouldn’t let me in until some of the trombone players came in. They said, “Johnny, what are you doing standing out here?” I said, “Well, these people don’t believe I’m in the band.” I was 17 years old, about 4-feet-10, and weighed about 75 pounds. I guess they thought I was just trying to hustle my way into this dance. Finally the trombone player said, “No, George, he’s with the band.”
Was this just after you’d joined Lionel Hampton?
Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.
And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.
There’s a funny story about your first gig. You had thought that you were hired to play alto saxophone, and were quickly disabused of that notion.
Right. Well, I was playing alto like a tenor anyway, you know. What happened was, I had graduated on a Thursday, and Hamp started that week at the Regal Theater in Chicago on that Friday. The late Jay Peters, the tenor saxophonist who had been hired to play in the band a few months earlier, had to go into the military service. Then Hamp remembered me because he had come by my high school, and had a jam session in the school assembly or something—so he asked for me. They found me on Sunday, and I went down and played a few tunes with the band with my alto. On the following Friday they went to the RKO Theatre in Toledo, Ohio.
No one said anything to me about I was going to replace a tenor saxophone player, because Maurice Simon or one of his brothers was playing saxophone in the band then. I had no idea what was to transpire, until I was walking on stage in Toledo, and Gladys Hampton stopped me. She used to call me Junior. She said, “Junior, where you going with that alto?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’re playing tenor in this band.” “What?” So I immediately caught a train back to Chicago. It was hard to come by a saxophone in those days, as the war was still going on, and they were making bullets and guns instead of musical instruments with the metal. I found an old saxophone and rejoined the band two days later.
When did you first get a chance to hang out a little bit in New York City?
Oh, I started hanging out as soon as I woke up that evening. At that time, New York was awash with after-hour joints. The hotel I stayed in was the Braddock Hotel, and in that hotel was the Billy Eckstine Big Band, the Count Basie Band, Lionel Hampton’s Band, and other musicians. The Braddock was right on the corner of 126th Street and 8th Avenue, and backstage of the Apollo Theatre was right up the street between 8th and 7th. The Braddock bar was downstairs, and all the famous musicians of the day would come and hang out and drink. Just standing around that corner you could pick up two or three big bands any time.
Do you remember hearing any music that night?
I have no idea where I went. In those days I was drinking, at my young age. It could have been the Baby Grand around the corner, or… I really don’t know where I went that particular night.
Do you remember when you first went to 52nd Street?
It could have been that night. I was in a rush to get down to 52nd Street, because I knew Dizzy was down there.
Now, I take it you were up on the latest trends in the music at that time.
Well, the latest trends being Charlie Parker. Yeah, as much as possible. I had seen the Billy Eckstine Big Band come through Chicago in ’44, and that was most fantastic thing I had ever witnessed. Of course, I was in love with Duke Ellington’s band and Count Basie’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band. But at the time, I thought that the Billy Eckstine band was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.
When you were slightly younger, did you have a chance to see the edition of the Earl Hines Orchestra that had Bird and Diz in it?
I don’t think I saw that band.
I know they played in Chicago.
I went down there, but I wasn’t aware that they were… I don’t think I went down there. Now, they worked in the Beige Room in the El Grotto at that time. You see, when I was a kid, 15 years old, I played with T-Bone Walker, the famous blues guitarist. His brother had a big band, and I would play off-nights at the Club DeLisa, the Rhumboogie, and the El Grotto, which later on turned into the Beige Room, which was in the Pershing Hotel.
On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?
Exactly. It was where Ahmad Jamal later on, fifteen years later, made his records. But he did his band upstairs, in the lounge. I really didn’t know about Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines band at that time. Now, I had gone down into that room, even underage. Billie Holiday sang in that room, and I never saw her down there either.
So your first memory of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was around 1944 with the Billy Eckstine Big Band.
Right. I heard Bird on some Jay McShann records before that, and I had heard Dizzy on some records with Coleman Hawkins, when they did “Woody ‘n You,” which they called “Algo Bueno.” Now, Billy Eckstine was very popular, of course, as a singer, as a balladeer. But to witness that big band in full flight, playing the new music like that, was quite a shock and very refreshing.
Were you trying to implement these ideas in your own playing at the age of 16 and 17 in high school?
Oh yes. Well, as soon as I heard Bird, that turned me around. Well, I was following in the footsteps of Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges (I still have some of that in me anyway), and then, of course, the late, great Lester Young. But Ben Webster was actually my first influence, although it was hearing Gene Ammons play tenor saxophone that caused me to want to play tenor saxophone.
What did your teacher, the famous Captain Walter Dyett, think of the new thing that Charlie Parker was doing? Do you ever recollect him saying anything about it?
I never heard him say one way or another. But he was the type of bandmaster that, any good music that came out, he would transcribe it off records, and he would have the band at school—the dance orchestra or stage band, whatever you called it—play whatever is there. But at that time, we certainly didn’t have any Billy Eckstine arrangements. [At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugit,” Elmo Hope, “Happy Hour,” Monk, “Ask Me Now,” Elmo Hope, “Carvin’ the Rock.”]
Let’s jump forward a few years. Under what circumstances did you first encounter Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell?
It was actually through Elmo Hope. Joe Morris and I had formed a band after leaving Lionel Hampton’s band in 1947—I think May or June. First we organized a sextet with musicians from Chicago. Joe Morris played trumpet, of course, and George Freeman, who is the uncle of Chico Freeman, and Von Freeman’s brother, played guitar. That group lasted from ’47 to ’48. Then we reorganized. We were walking around Harlem one day, and we ran into Benny Harris, the trumpeter, and we were saying that we needed a pianist. He said, “Well, I’ve got just the pianist for you.” It turned out to be Elmo Hope, who was of small stature, but a very brilliant if erratic-at-times pianist. It was through Elmo that I met Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They were like a trio, inseparable, always together. Somehow or another, they adopted me. When I say “adopted,” I was around them, from piano to piano, from house to house, daily, from ’48 to ’50.
This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.
That’s exactly what it was. It was a very important part of my life. They still are important. They seemed to enjoy me, for some reason. I have no idea why, other than the fact that I had a little knowledge of the piano, so I could see what they were doing, and if I didn’t understand what was happening, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask, “What is that?” The three of them were masters in their own right. I heard Elmo and Bud Powell play piano duets, playing Preludes and fugues of Bach. They put on a program of Christmas music one year in the Bronx, at a club (oh Jesus, it’s so long ago, I can’t remember the name of this club—possibly the 845), for two pianos, and it was fabulous! It was really a trio, although during those days I didn’t hear Monk play that much. Elmo and Bud were always playing when you’d go to different homes—they didn’t seem to have a piano, of course. Other cats would play. Walter Bishop, Jr., would be around sometimes, too.
But I got a chance to hear Monk play mainly at his home, where he would be rehearsing Ernie Henry and other musicians in his band—I can’t remember the rest of them—for certain gigs in Brooklyn..
Were you playing with Monk at all then?
No, I didn’t play with him at all during that time. I did play with Bud at somebody’s house party. Of course, Elmo was working with the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band at that time.
Did you start to learn Thelonious Monk’s compositions at that time, and Bud Powell’s compositions?
Bud Powell’s, but not Thelonious’. I didn’t start learning Thelonious’ compositions until after I came out of the Army at the end of 1953. Monk came to Chicago. I wasn’t working then, and was at home, looking at television or something, when either Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell called and said, “Johnny, come on over to the Beehive. Thelonious is in town, and we need a saxophone player.” So I immediately put on some clothes and ran over there, and jumped right into Monk’s music. No rehearsals.
That must have been exciting.
Very, if you know Monk’s music. Very exciting. I admire Thelonious more than any other musician that I have been around, in a way, really in my life. He always walked around looking like Jomo Kenyatta and people were afraid of him. But behind that facade was a real humorist, as if you listen to his music you can hear. Monk wasn’t a person to speak very much. He could be quiet for a half-an-hour or twenty minutes at a stretch, and all the other musicians yakkety-yak and running off at the mouth, and Monk would enter the conversation and say about four words, and destroy everything that had been going on for the past hour—totally. He would total everyone with three or four words. That’s the type of person he was. He used space as he did in his playing and his composition.
Later on, whilst playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, I was staying in Art Blakey’s home. In fact, I helped him move from the Bronx down to Manhattan. Now, Monk and Art Blakey were very, very close friends. Monk would come around the band, and Art Blakey was trying to get Monk to play piano in his band. This was at the same time Monk was working in the Five Spot with Coltrane and Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. We even had a date on Atlantic with Monk playing piano.
Then the following year I played with Thelonious; he was trying to get Art Blakey to play in his band, although he had Roy Haynes playing drums and Ahmad-Abdul Malik playing bass.
But after these gigs were over at night, we’d go hang out at either my pad or Art Blakey’s pad, or Thelonious’… Well, not so much at Thelonious’, because he had a very small place, and we wouldn’t wake Nellie up. But Buhaina had a large place, and I lived alone, so it could end up anywhere. And the conversations would be torrid—about many different subjects, of course.
Can you say a few words about your relationship with Bud Powell?
Well, you see, Bud was a sick man. He had been injured by being in hospitals, and he had been beaten and had these electric shock treatments. So he was erratic, until he sat down to the piano to play, and then it all left, and he was the burner. I can still feel it. You will always feel it as long as you have recordings of him playing his music. Bud Powell was the Nth degree of a burning pianist. When I say “burning,” I mean the emotional content of fire. Volcanic, the way he played it. I consider him as a thumper. His touch on the piano was more of a thump than a touch, because he was very percussive, and you could feel the emotion in his lines and his solos, or even in his compositions. Very percussive. He was very strong, spontaneous, always fresh with so much strength. Yet still he could play a ballad, you know, completely on the other side of the coin, which would leave you breathless.
Elmo Hope had less recognition than Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. But you knew him very well.
Yeah, it’s funny. They were like twins. I remember once I was at Elmo’s house, and Bud’s mother called up Elmo’s mother to tell Elmo that Bud had just gotten out of the hospital, and “Please, Mrs. Hope, would you tell Elmo to let Bud get himself back together?” Elmo was like the ringleader, being a semi-devil’s advocate of whatever was happening on the scene in those days. But before she even got off the telephone, Bud was about to break the door down at Elmo’s house, screaming, “Elmo, it’s Bud! Let me in. It’s Bud. I’m back.” So there was no separating these two musicians.
[At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge”; Johnny Hodges, “Passion Flower”; Lester Young, “D.B. Blues”; Bird, “Ko-Ko”]
Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, two of the pillars of the Ellington band, were two of your great influences.
Very much. “Chelsea Bridge” doesn’t have the tempo Ben Webster put on, say, “Cottontail,” which was made famous with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, when Ben was playing rough—this was a very tender ballad, of course. But if you notice the closeness of Ben Webster’s style of expression vis-a-vis Johnny Hodges. Their styles were so similar, except one was playing tenor and one was playing alto. Johnny Hodges was from the Boston area and Ben Webster was from Kansas City.
Which is funny, because after Johnny Hodges had died, I was with Ben Webster, and I took him to the Selmer Instrument Company in Paris. I thought he wanted to have something done to his tenor saxophone, but he wanted to buy an alto saxophone. Actually, he wanted them to give him an alto saxophone, which they did. When I was taking him back to his hotel, I said, “I know why you got that alto saxophone.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You got it because you want to sound just like Rabbit.” That’s what they called Johnny Hodges, because he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music. Of course, Ben Webster looked at me and said, “Why you little-bitty…” deleted expletive. . . . I can’t say the dirty words that he used to call me—fondly, of course.
Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?
Yes, I was. Playing ballads. But if I played something in tempo, I’d be more like a rough Ben Webster, growling with the alto, not unlike an Earl Bostic sound, but trying to sound more like Ben Webster. I was really playing alto very hard. Seeing Gene Ammons play when I was about 12 years old made me decide right then that I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a graduation party for my grammar school, and Jug was playing with the King Kolax Band at the Parkway Ballroom. That started my voyage.
How old were you when you started going out to hear music regularly in Chicago?
When was I going out to hear it? As soon as they would let me go into any place, so that I could sneak in. I was playing with people, working when I was 14 or 15 years old, as soon as I could get in the Musicians Union. I lied about my birthdate.
You were at DuSable High School then, where the famous Walter Dyett was bandmaster. Did he facilitate that?
No, he had nothing to do with it. A group of us youngsters at DuSable had put together a band called the Baby Band, which played dances for the kids in school—not in the school, but in the ballrooms where the big bands that came to Chicago would play. So this promoter had the brilliant idea of putting up a big poster of me—I mean three times life-size—on the school store, which was right across the street from the band-room. You’d look out of the third-floor band-room window and see this poster. I was playing clarinet… No, I think I was playing oboe in the concert band.
I happened to come to school, and the Captain had seen the sign down there. Now, he had his own professional band, also with a few students, called the DuSableites, and sometimes his bands would be in competition for gigs. Well, not really. But anyway, when he saw this photo, this huge publicity sign on me. . . . Well, when I came to school he told all the students—there were like 115 pieces—to go to the window and look out at the star, the musical star that’s gracing the walls of the school store—this picture of me. He invited them all to sit down, and then he invited me to play my part on something, I don’t know; it was probably Ravel’s “Bolero” or something—that’s why I was playing oboe anyway. I hadn’t practiced right, and I was embarrassed. He completely undressed me in front of the band, to give me some humility and to make me practice and, you know. . . . But Captain Dyett was a wonderful man. As he was to all the kids. . . . Well, he taught Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, Bennie Green, the trombonist, Charles Davis, the saxophonist, Clifford Jordan. . . .
We could spend an hour listing the musicians.
Yeah, really. Chicago was a saxophone town. I mean, there were a lot of blues guitarists there, of course—T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. But for jazz, it was really a saxophone town. Later it was an organ town, too. Most of the saxophonists tried to emulate the late Lester Young. Everybody knew Prez’s solos by heart. That was the main direction. We Chicago musicians played the music not of New Orleans, but the music that was emanating from Kansas City. That was the style. The Basie band.
Did you hear that on records? Was Basie coming through town?
The Basie band all the time, because they were traversing all of the states—as was Duke’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band and other bands. But a lot of territory bands would also come, like Alex Larkin’s band. Some would come from Texas, other bands from Oklahoma or Nebraska, and they would go no further east than Chicago. Chicago was the hub, as it still is, with the railroad system, and as O’Hare is as an airline hub. Some bands came to Chicago from the East, though not that many, and that’s as far West as they would go. But it was mainly the bands coming from Texas, musicians coming up from New Orleans and Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and out west from Denver, from Omaha and Kansas City.
Kansas City was like the center of that Basie-type music, Walter Brown singing the blues with Jay McShann, the Jimmy Rushing-Joe Turner blues singing type. So the young saxophonists, most of whom were tenor saxophone players, opted after Prez’s music—the swing! To show you the difference in this music coming from Kansas City. . .. You’d associate Ben Webster’s sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra more than you would, say, with Count Basie’s band. Which is funny, because Ben told me at my house one day (I had him in my house for about a week) how as a young man he studied music under Prez’s father. Lester Young (when I say Prez, I mean Lester Young) used to take Ben Webster on his gigs as a pianist, because he liked the way Ben Webster comped. Ben could play stride on the piano. He liked that sound.
To me, Lester Young was the trunk of the swing tree. By that, I mean (it might be a bit strong) no Prez, no Bird. Basie’s band was originally more or less built around Lester Young and Herschel Evans, who was the other tenor saxophonist in that band. Prez and Herschel were very good friends, but the styles were completely different. Prez had a fleet, light filmy type sound, while Herschel Evans had a great big sound. I’d associate Herschel Evans’ style of playing with the way Arnett Cobb played, even Illinois Jacquet—although I think Jacquet had a touch of Don Byas in him also. But it was not like Ben Webster. It was completely different. Another approach. You would have to hear these records one by one to really tell the difference.
To me, Don Byas was the world’s greatest tenor saxophone player. I call him the Art Tatum of the tenor saxophone, because he used some of the harmonic progressions that Tatum used when improvising. Don Byas had a big, warm sound, and enough technique to do whatever he wanted to do. He could play beautiful ballads, and he could play as fast as you want. He was not a bebop tenor saxophonist, but he could play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He played in a style between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, like Paul Gonsalves, very smooth, but strong.
The first time I heard Charlie Parker was on a Jay McShann record that my cousin had bought, not to hear Charlie Parker but to hear Walter Brown sing the blues—the “Hootie Blues.” I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, and I loved the way Walter Brown sang the blues. Joe Turner also, and Jimmy Rushing. I loved the Kansas City blues. This alto saxophone player started to play, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I rushed over to the machine, and started the whole thing all over. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because I’m interrupting the dancing. But I had to hear this over, because I couldn’t figure out who that was playing alto saxophone. First I thought it was Prez, and then I realized it’s an alto and Prez doesn’t phrase that way—although there was something there, that type swing, that I had gotten from Prez. It was Charlie Parker. His record, “Ko-Ko,” was my music lesson for years.
You recorded “Cherokee” twice in the 1950’s.
That tune was like the standard bearer for the jam session. When Sonny Stitt would come in town to challenge all of the saxophone players, he was. . . Now, Sonny Stitt was the devil. I don’t mean literally that he was the devil—he was, like, the heckler. He lived in Michigan—Saginaw, I think—and he’d come to Chicago to disturb the saxophone players there. Even later on in New York, he would come in my room and say, “Johnny, play me something.” So I would play something on my horn. He’d say, “Okay, now give me the horn.” Of course, Sonny Stitt was the master of his horn. He could play every modern cliché ever invented by Bird or Dizzy or whomever, and I would just pull my hair out by the roots to be able to do what he was doing. He would have made a helluva professor of music.
They say he would challenge musicians with how many pads there were on the saxophones. . . .
Oh, yeah! He would get very academic on you; you know, how many keys on a saxophone. And who in the hell would take time to count the keys? It’s enough to play them without counting them! But he was like that. Or what’s the notes in this scale or that scale. But he made me practice more than anyone else. Because it was my desire to be able to invite him on the bandstand to play with me, without being humiliated by his talent and the genius of what he was doing.
These type of sessions were very common in Chicago in the 1950’s.
Oh, it was. Sonny Rollins used to come into Chicago to woodshed, especially to come in and woodshed with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day.
Ike Day was a little, thin, almost purple guy, he must have been about 5-feet-7-or-8, very thin and wiry. I mean, he was so bad on the drums that he set up two drums in this club in Chicago called the Macombo, and then any other drummer could come and sit in. Buddy Rich came in and saw this, and he couldn’t believe it. He took him out of this joint on the South Side of Chicago to play in his big band at the College Inn in the Loop, which was a hotel where they didn’t even want black people. That’s how bad he was.
I think Ike came to New York around 1947 or ’48, with Slim Gaillard, and immediately went to Minton’s and tore the joint out.
Can you describe his sound was like?
From what I can recollect, his sound would be more like a Philly Joe Jones type, which in the beginning I found was like a cross between Max Roach and Art Blakey. I mean, that’s not completely true, because there’s a lot of Cozy Cole in Philly’s playing, too. But Ike could do anything. He was a showman, but everything was really swinging at all times without turning into a visual circus. It was amazing the way he could play.
And you must have been backed by him on any number of occasions.
Yes. Well, what happened was, at one point, when the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band was in Ohio, Philly Joe Jones quit, and we needed a bass player and a drummer. I called Chicago, and Ike and Wilbur came and joined the band for a while. That was my first experience to actually get to know them. However, I had sat in with them at a jam session in Chicago, at the end of 1946 or early ’47, in between the two times I played with Hamp’s band. They were working with Gene Ammons at a club called the Congo, along with Gail Brockman, the trumpetist.
Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.
Many, many years. Now, Wilbur could play drums, too. I heard that he and Ike used to play on the street corners of Chicago. Ike would set up his pots and pans and stuff, and Wilbur had a 2-by-4 with him, a washtub with a clothesline bass—they’d get out there and make money on the street-corner.
He was also a tap dancer, wasn’t he?
Exactly. Wilbur was very percussive. As you can hear in his bass playing.
Chicago had clubs just all over the place in the 1950’s. From what I hear, you could just go anywhere and play, and there was a very supportive situation for young musicians.
Yes, there were many clubs there. Of course, at the time I came up, a lot of musicians were in the Armed Services, because World War Two was going on. So there were opportunities for younger musicians. Like I said, I was playing with T-Bone Walker’s brother’s big band on the off-nights in these Chicago nightclubs. Chicago was wide open. As I said, many musicians were always in Chicago, coming from all over America. When the big bands would come to town, there were jam sessions; Ben Webster and other musicians would go out and blow after-hours. Well, it really didn’t have to be after-hours, because Chicago was a 24-hour town anyway. But there were many clubs in New York also at this time. There were many clubs in Detroit. Many clubs in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia used to be like my second home. If I wasn’t doing anything in New York during that period, sometimes Elmo and I would go there with Jackie Paris’ brother, an Italian singer, who had a little old car. He would drive us, and we would stay in Philly Joe Jones’ house to go and jam with Coltrane. Trane was then an alto saxophone player. Jimmy Heath was playing baritone. Philadelphia was wide-open, except on Sundays—because they had that Blue Law. But the rest of the week, Philly was wailin’! It reminded me so much of Chicago, the way the residential areas were set up. It’s so close to New York, only an hour and change away by train, so driving there was nothing.
I was with The Joe Morris band was playing a club in Philadelphia called the Zanzibar with our Chicago sextet with George Freeman the first time I heard Philly Joe. Our drummer at the time was Embra Daylie, who had been in World War Two, and had been injured in the war in the Pacific, so he had a respiratory problem. During intermission, I had gone out, and when I came back, I was informed that they had taken him to the hospital because of respiratory problems. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We have this drummer who is going to sit in.” We started playing, and I thought this guy was awful. I said, “Now, listen, wait a minute. We’ve got to get somebody else.”
Philly was so conscientious. I used to watch Philly Joe and Joe Harris, the drummer who played with Dizzy’s big band, practice all day long, really go through all the drum books of the day and practice getting control. They wouldn’t practice on the regular, hard rubber drum pads like you find most drummers do. They would practice on soft pillow cushions on the bed, so that they would have to bring the stick back up with their wrists, which gave them that ultimate in control—which really did them well.
To me, Philly Joe was the greatest, most exciting drummer that I have ever been around in my life. Now, I played with Art Blakey, who was one of the most explosive. . . . like you’re riding on a train with him. Buhaina when he’s really bearing down is really something else. I played with Max Roach—the sheer tenacity and knowledge that Max could put into intricate drumming. Roy Haynes also. The swing of Arthur Taylor. Now, there’s a drummer. I don’t know any drummer that could swing any more than Arthur Taylor. I mean, Arthur Taylor to me is like a cross between Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in a way, with some Max Roach thrown in there.
But Philly Joe was the ultimate, like Ali Baba in the Forty Thieves or “Open, oh, sesame. . . .” We used to play these Monday nights in Birdland, and had, like, Charlie Persip, who is a helluva drummer, known mostly for playing with big bands, but he had a small group then, and Max Roach and all these cats would play some drum solos that were outlandish. But Joe was a magician. I’d look at him and think, “Now, what is he going to do?” But just when I thought I knew everything he could do, he’d find something else to do. I’d see him during the day walking around in his sneakers and stuff (I don’t know what he was into), looking almost like Pete the Tramp. But then in the evening, when I opened up in Birdland, if I was playing with another group, when I’d walk on the stage there he’d be sitting right at the first table dressed up, looking like he’d stepped out of Esquire magazine—up tight, baby, too sharp! Over-charming. Unbelievable. Philly Joe Jones.
[At this point, Griffin played the following recordings: Philly Joe Jones, “Blues For Dracula”; Gene Ammons, “Nature Boy”; Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, “Move”]
Johnny Griffin on Gene Ammons (April 10, 1985):
TP: Tell me about when you first encountered Gene Ammons?
JG: I think my first recollection of Gene Ammons was when my grammar school graduating class had a party. I must have been 12 years old, or maybe 13 — 1941. In Chicago. That party was at then a new ballroom in Chicago called the Parkway Ballroom, on the near South Side, at 45th Street and South Park Boulevard, which is now King Drive. Like I said, my graduating class (it was the month of June, I think) had this party, dance, kids 12-13-14 years old, I think. It was King Kolax’s band playing there. And in the band was Gene Ammons.
TP: He was only 16-17 at the time.
JG: Yes, he was only a few years older than I. Right, something like that. He was playing in King Kolax’s band. The reason I can remember this so clearly is because it was at that time, when I saw and heard him play… There was another saxophonist there also; I’ve forgotten his name. But watching Jug play, that’s when I decided that I was going to play saxophone.
TP: Do you remember what it was about the way he was playing?
JG: I don’t remember anything about the way… Just that I liked it, and it was the sound, that tenor saxophone sound that intrigued me. I had knowledge of the piano and the guitar…Hawaiian guitar, that is. Actually, I didn’t know what course of studies I was going to take in high school. But when I saw and heard him play tenor saxophone at this dance for these kids, I decided then that that’s what I want to follow — and that’s what I followed.
TP: You and Jug attended the same high school…
TP: …and had the same bandmaster, Walter Dyett.
JG: That’s right. Walter Dyett, exactly.
TP: Was that one reason why you went to DuSable, or was it just a factor of where you lived?
JG: DuSable was also where I lived. It was in the neighborhood. It was the high school that I normally would have gone to anyway. But hearing this music and being intrigued and fascinated by the tenor saxophone in his hands, with Gene Ammons playing… The first thing I did was go to the bandmaster, of course, to enlist in the band, to tell him I wanted to play saxophone.
TP: From what I recollect from reading interviews, I don’t think he let you play the tenor right away. Isn’t that right?
JG: Well, he actually never let me play tenor, because it was his thing that the tenor saxophone was much too large for me to play. But I understood what he meant. But he made me play clarinet, which I didn’t want to play clarinet — but later on I realized that it was the proper direction to take, studying clarinet first.
TP: Did you continue to follow Gene Ammons or see him perform during your high school years?
JG: Oh, yes. Well, actually he had dropped out of school. I don’t think he ever graduated from the school. But I followed his career mainly after he was with the Billy Eckstine Band. Although when he came to Chicago to play, I would hear him. But the next real effect that he had on me was when he played with the Billy Eckstine Big Band. He and Dexter played “Blowing The Blues Away,” “blow Mr. Dexter, blow Mr. Ammons…”
TP: “Lonesome Lover Blues.”
JG: “Lonesome Lover Blues,” that’s right. That was a high point really.
TP: Were you playing tenor saxophone by that time?
JG: No, I was playing alto saxophone. The bandmaster finally let me play alto saxophone in the school dance band.
TP: Did Gene Ammons have an effect on the way you approached the tenor saxophone as a young musician?
JG: No. The first saxophonist I tried to emulate was Ben Webster. As I was playing alto, it turned into Johnny Hodges. But I would growl if the tune had any kind of tempo to it, like Frog would, like Ben Webster would. Not realizing, actually, that the way Ben Webster played tenor saxophone and the way that Johnny Hodges played alto was so similar that you probably could change instruments, you couldn’t tell them apart.
TP: When did you get to know Gene Ammons?
JG: When I was in high school. I remember seeing him in school once. I remember asking him about how do you make a certain fingering, and he fluffed me off. [LAUGHS] I looked at him and said, “Ok, I’ll learn.” But Gene was very friendly. A very friendly person. Very warm. Fun. Fun to be around. Had a good humor.
TP: After he left Billy Eckstine, was he mostly around Chicago after World War 2 — 1947-1948…
JG: No, he had his own band with some Chicago musicians, and he also worked a lot with Sonny Stitt.
TP: With Sonny Stitt even at that time?
JG: Well, maybe by the late 40s and 50s…early 50s with Sonny Stitt. But he always had his own band anyway. And he was quite successful. His records were very popular.
TP: Jukebox hits.
JG: Jukebox hits, oh, definitely. He had his own way of playing. At that time, most of the tenor saxophonists were emulating Lester Young, more or less. That was the direction. Most of the saxophone players in Chicago followed Prez’s sound. Prez was king. We all played Prez’s solos note for note, more than anyone else. That is to say, not like Ben Webster or Wardell Gray or Coleman Hawkins. It was all Prez. Well, actually Wardell…they were all off Prez anyway, some of them, in style, in direction. I don’t remember any of the saxophone players that I grew up with who actually followed Coleman Hawkins.
TP: But Jug had a different way?
JG: Jug had a… It was off Prez, but his sound was so different. He had a big sound. Also he played with the microphone right in the bell of his instrument, as Dexter does, too, right now. They both had big sounds. But Gene had another sound. He had more of a bluesy, soulful type sound than, say, Dexter or Wardell, or most of the young semi-bebop saxophone players.
TP: Tell me something about the scene in Chicago during the years after World War 2 up through the early 1950s. General impressions, and maybe I’ll ask something specific.
JG: Actually, when the war was over, I was with Lionel Hampton’s band. I quit the band in 1947, and the time that I spent in Chicago was only to go and get a few musicians to play with Joe Morris and I, who started a band, and we didn’t stay in Chicago. In between, I would come back to Chicago and have a jam session with Gene Ammons at the White City Ballroom, or one of the clubs…
TP: Describe the jam sessions? What would the pattern be? What would they be like?
JG: Oh, the pattern would be like Gene Ammons was the reigning king and I was like the upstart. Which is fun, to be the upstart.
TP: How would it set up? You played first, or Jug did, or…
JG: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. It didn’t come down to anything like that. It would be like I could just come to town, and he was working in a club, and I’d walk in the club, and they would get me to go up and play with him, something like that. Sometimes we’d have gigs together, at certain ballrooms. Like I said, Gene Ammons was the reigning king, and I was like the up-and-coming youngster. So they more or less tolerated what I was doing. And I had fun. My style and Jug’s style were complementary in the sense that we didn’t play in the same direction.
TP: You were well-known for your tempos…
JG: More or less, yeah. Nervousness. [LAUGHS] Hot tempos.
TP: Well, for tackling the heaviest tempos, while Jug was maybe known more for dealing with the blues, ballads…
TP: Who were some of the other tenor players who were up there with Gene Ammons at the time? Two names that come to mind for me would be Von Freeman and Tom Archia.
JG: Oh, yes. Definitely Tom Archia. Von Freeman, too. I hadn’t played with Von Freeman that often. In fact, I think I played with Von Freeman the first time last year at the Chicago Jazz Fest. We may have played together before, but I couldn’t remember. But his brother grew up with me all through high school, George Freeman, and he played with me in that first band out of Chicago that Joe Morris and I took to New York.
TP: Was Elmo also in that band?
JG: No. Elmo was in the band the next band. We got Elmo and then Philly Joe, Nelson Boyd or Percy Heath – like that.
TP: You returned to Chicago when? 1952-53.
JG: I got drafted into the Army in 1951 and spent a couple of years in Hawaii, in the military band there. I came back in 1953, and stayed until I joined the Jazz Messengers in 1957. Leaving, though… I’d go to New York if I’d be called by Art Blakey for some reason, or do other things. But I stayed there actually in 1957.
TP: Was Jug living in Chicago, too, during those years?
JG: Sometimes. You see, he was very unfortunate in having been busted, and he spent quite a bit of time in jail. Now, the exact years I couldn’t tell you.
TP: But would it be accurate to say that during this time you and Jug were the two most reputed tenor players in the city.
JG: Actually, yes. When I came out in 1953, John Gilmore had come up since I’d been gone. Clifford Jordan was always there. Pat Patrick. Charles Davis. Tom Archia was living there all the time, too — from Texas, Tom Archia. There were other saxophonists there. Melvin Scott. Arthur Simon. Lank Keys. All these cats could play.
TP: Was Nicky Hill in there?
JG: My first cognizance of Nicky Hill was around… I came back into Chicago…must have been during the time I was with Art Blakey, 1957, or with Monk… In between those bands I came back to Chicago, and there was Nicky Hill and there was Ira Sullivan, playing not only tenor but trumpet also.
TP: A record you did with him has just been reissued, where you play all the saxophones.
JG: Oh my God, please. Oh-ho-ho! That was made one Sunday morning after working all night, and we was all stoned out of heads, too, into this little studio about as big as your bathroom. And they stuck this baritone… I don’t know where these instruments came from. It wasn’t mine. Only the tenor.
TP: Anyway, it sounds pretty good.
JG: I’d completely forgotten about that.
TP: But was it a fairly regular thing for you and Jug to be paired off against each other?
JG: If I was there, yes. But Jug was usually paired off with Sonny Stitt. They traveled a lot together. During the 50s, the groups around Chicago, until Jug came out of jail, was mainly Ira Sullivan, Nicky Hill, John Gilmore, Clifford Jordan would be around, and the alto saxophone player, John Jenkins.
TP: Most of these people from DuSable High School.
JG: That’s right. The bandmaster was fantastic.
TP: Tell me a bit about Walter Dyett’s methods.
JG: First of all, he was a strict disciplinarian. He controlled everything. I never heard him play an instrument in my life, but I understood he played violin. But his method of teaching was he’d always select the best students… As I learned clarinet, he had a lady there, Geraldine Springs. A beautiful young lady. She taught me clarinet. She’s living in New York now. I saw her when I played my first concert here with Dexter at Carnegie Hall in 1978.
But somehow, the students learned how to play. When you joined the beginner’s band, we walked around the floor in the bandroom learning how to count, like little children, subdividing notes and singing with our hands, with our fingers – how to subdivide rhythm. Then he’d let us buzz the mouthpiece. Now I’m speaking of the clarinet. Well, the trumpet players also had to buzz just the mouthpiece. Then finally, he let us put the mouthpieces into the barrel of the clarinet and start playing the notes, as an exercise.
TP: A very systematic approach.
JG: Very systematic. Very controlled. We would do that… I entered the band September, and by January when the second half of the first term came in, if you’d accomplished enough you could come out of that beginner’s band, which would be maybe 130 students, and go into the second concert band, and then play very light, easy things. Teaching us how to play in ensemble.
Then after a full year, by the next September, if you had accomplished enough, you could join the first concert band, and play 3rd or 4th clarinet.
TP: What sorts of functions would the first concert band be playing?
JG: We played all the big assemblies. We played in the high school contest in the state of Illinois, and always came out at the top. The very top, with the best grades, or near the top with the best schools.
Not only that, you had a 25-to-27 piece dance band. Captain Dyett would transcribe Duke Ellington’s music, Jimmy Lunceford’s music, Count Basie, Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw, whatever was popular at the time.
TP: Would he show you specifically what was required for playing dance music, phrasing and so on?
JG: Definitely. But we would be aware of this music anyway, since we were listening to it all the time. It was on the radio. It was popular music. Plus, he had his own dance band outside of school. I was in another band outside of school also, called the Baby Band. I remember one day coming to class. Across from the band room… The bandroom was on the third floor. But across the street, on the corner, was a store called Nick and Angel’s(?—18:33), where the students would go in and get lunches, school lunches, and they had a jukebox in there, where I listened to that Billy Eckstine record I was talking about with Gene and Dexter on there, and “Solo Flight,” Charlie Christian’s solo with Benny Goodman’s band… I’m just thinking about my favorites.
But on the wall they put up a big photo of me, a promoter did. Huge, three times life-size. I remember coming into the classroom one day, and Walter Dyett had all the students go over to the window and say, “I want you to look across the street on the wall next to Nick and Angel’s(?) and see we have a star in the school band.” I was so embarrassed. He said, “Ok, everybody sit down. Now, you, Star – play letter so-and-so-and-so on clarinet.” I hadn’t practiced, and I’m fumbling around.
TP: He probably knew.
JG: You could never hide from this man. The guys trying to hide behind their stands, cheating, and he would stop the band. He would throw the baton at them…
TP: He was accurate?
JG: Accurate. Very accurate with his one eye. He had the little flute players, the little girls, he’d have them in tears. Because he didn’t mince his words. He used very strong language at times. But he had carte blanche to do what he wanted to do, because of his success at training these young black students… And there were a few white kids in the band, too. But to train these kids off the street, give them this discipline, and to really mold them into something beautiful.
We also had a 100-110 piece ROTC marching band for sporting events and for parades, like that. He was a Reserve Captain, in the Reserves Officer Corps.
TP: So Walter Dyett gave his students, particularly his most talented students, a full range of experience that they’d need to become professional musicians.
JG: Listen. It was not unusual for one of the big bands to come in town and one of the musicians became ill or something, and they needed a replacement… It was not unusual for a student out of that band, if he was in the union, to sit in and take the place of the musician who was ill or missing. It could be Basie’s band, Hamp’s band, anything.
TP: He put you in the union?
JG: No, he didn’t put me in the union.
TP: He put other students in the union, though?
JG: If you wanted to play outside of school, you had to belong to the union. The union was very strong, and used strong-arm methods to see that anybody playing in clubs or anyplace belonged to the union. I mean, they used strong-arm methods. At that time, they had a Black union and a white union. The Black union was Local 208, the opposite of New York, which is 802. The white union was Local 10, which Petrillo, who was the president of the international union, had originally come from.
TP: Moving back to Gene Ammons, he’s the product of… Well, his father was a very famous musician…
JG: That’s right.
TP: He had experience in the church (his father was a deacon), and in high school… If you were encapsulate your experience of knowing Gene Ammons, what would be the quality that you’d say characterizes him to you?>
JG: His big, bluesy sound on his instrument, and his sensitiveness to what the public expected out of him or wanted to hear him play. He was a crowd-pleaser. He knew just how to make nuances on his instrument to please the public at hand. As his record sales proved. He was really in touch with what the people wanted at that time, that period.
TP: As you recollect hearing him in the 1950s, did he play mostly with pianists? With organ players? Any situation that arose?
JG: Yes. I think he could play well with organ players. He could always play with regular piano-bass-and-drums, like that. But I think he was very successful in playing with organ players, with his sound, the way that he approached that sound… Chicago was an organ town, too. As opposed to myself. I have always had problems with organs. I think it’s too much noise for me, too much power. I can’t blend well with it. Or maybe I didn’t feel bluesy enough to really feel… I could PLAY, you understand, but I’m an acoustic freak. I love piano. A good Steinway… There’s nothing better than good, concert-grand Steinway piano. That’s the sound that I hear. But Gene could play with these organ players, and really raise the roof with the steam and power that he could generate with the saxophone and with the organists, really in clubs…or in concert form also.
TP: Let me ask that question about the qualities of Gene Ammons that would really stand out in terms of your personal relationship.
JG: He was a very friendly, a very friendly person. In fact, when they locked him up for drugs, it’s like he was framed. He was never selling drugs or anything. He used drugs, of course, and if anybody got drugs from him it would be a gift or something. Because Gene Ammons was not a drug salesman. They just took advantage of him. He was taken advantage of, every time. To know him was to love him, because he was a very nice person.
TP: When was the last time you saw Jug?
JG: Wow. The last time I saw Jug… I don’t know if it was the last time I played in McKie’s with Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis on one set, and Jug was playing the other set. That may have been the last time. It might have been 1961 or 1962.
TP: You didn’t see him after he was released from prison the second time.
JG: No, I missed him. I was living in Europe. I left America in 1963. When he came to Europe with Dexter and they played at Montreux, I never saw him. I never saw him again.
TP: There are some great stories about Jug tackling great saxophonists from out of town. One I’ve heard is when he was playing opposite Sonny Rollins, and they locked horns after closing.
JG: That’s possible.
TP: Wondering if you have any memories along those lines.
JG: I couldn’t speak about that, because I don’t know. I do know that Sonny Rollins… Chicago was a center. Sonny Rollins would come to Chicago to woodshed, so to speak. He played with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day and get himself together right there in Chicago. Many musicians did that. Sonny Stitt was always in and out of Chicago, but of course, Sonny Stitt spent his younger life in Detroit and the state of Michigan. Chicago was always a jam session town. You’d find Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Prez…the after-hours… And so many clubs. Tom Archia. It was a good jam session town, and it was a town where bands would come in to the theaters on the South Side, the Regal Theater, and play all day, and the cats want to go out and jam because they got tired of playing the show music all day. There were enough clubs playing jazz music for them to go out and enjoy themselves at night. Now, that goes for whether it’s Milt Jackson or Dizzy or Bird or whomever. Chicago was that kind of town. Very hospitable.
TP: I know that the Ellington band liked to lay over in Chicago.
JG: Yes, most bands liked to lay over there.
TP: There were rooming houses on South Parkway.
JG: That’s right. The Manor House. In those days, many clubs… Chicago was a ball to be in. That’s why, even when I wasn’t working and was living in New York, Elmo Hope and I, we’d go to Philadelphia and stay at Philly Joe Jones’ pad over there and hang out and jam, because Philadelphia reminded me so much of Chicago because there were a lot of clubs and a lot of good musicians. So we’d go there to hang out and play with Coltrane, when he was playing alto, and Jimmy Heath when he was playing baritone, back in the late 40s.
TP: this has nothing to do with Gene Ammons, but I wonder if you can say a few words about Ike Day, the legendary drummer.
JG: I don’t know what I can say about Ike Day. It’s just a pity he was never heard really. I think he was on a few records, not well recorded. I know he came to New York with Slim Gaillard once and turned out Minton’s. All the drummers… You need to ask Max Roach, ask the drummers about him.
TP: What made his approach distinctive?
JG: This Cozy Cole type… Ike Day was the kind of drummer… You know Philly Joe Jones. Well, similar to that. He was like a potpourri. He could play anything, any kind of style. I remember Buddy Rich coming in to hear him once at this club on the South Side, and when he heard him, he hired him immediately and took him down to play with his band in the College Inn when they didn’t even want black people in the hotel unless they were servants.
He was real thin, dark, almost purple color. Thin cat, like made out of piano wire. He could play anything. His ideas and his imagination was endless. That’s what brought Philly Joe Jones to my mind. At that time, he was the greatest drummer that I had ever heard, from what he could do.
TP: When I think of him it reminds me of Sid Catlett, another Chicago who could play anything with total imagination.
JG: Yeah, Sid Catlett. And Dave Tough was like that. But yeah, there was Sid Catlett, but in a different way — more modern. If you can imagine Sid Catlett being more modern, more in tune with the younger cats who were coming up, the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy, what they called bebop. Ike Day would fit right in, and Max, Art Blakey in a sense… But this guy was really something else. It’s hard to explain. You would have to really hear it.
TP: That’s why we have to ask — we can’t hear it.
JG: Yes, I know, it’s unfortunate. And he was never recorded very well.
TP: The one recording there is almost underwater. It’s a Tom Archia-Jug date actually.
One other person I’d like to ask you about is Wilbur Ware, who you knew very well.
JG: Well, he and Ike Day came up together. They used to play on street corners as a matter of fact, Wilbur was playing a washtub bass, a 2-by-4 clothesline and iron bathtubs, hah, and pulling the 2-by-4 back to get tension on the clothesline to make a bass sound.
Wilbur Ware was a phenomenon. He was all ears. Couldn’t read a note as big as this building, but you’d just let him hear it. Just natural. Very percussive. Ike Day had taught him how to play drums, too. Plus, he could dance.
TP: He was a tap dancer, yes?
JG: He could dance. Both of them could dance. They’d be dancing on street-corners and everything in Chicago, with the hat on the ground – busking. Very beautiful person. He was charming. The charming Wilbur Ware. Bernard! Oh, ho-ho, that’s right — Bernard Beware. [LAUGHS]
[END OF CONVERSATION]