JOHNNY GRIFFIN / Griff Plays Monk Mixtape
Because we in the United States grow up in a culture that studiously avoids in-depth investigations of our history, we not only forget a lot of important information, worse that forgetting, we are totally ignorant of much of what has made us who we are. And beyond forgetting and ignorance, or twin demons eating our consciousness: we don’t want to know and when we do find out we don’t care. Indeed, we love to live in oblivion just as long as we can feed our pleasure syndromes. We used to call it comfort corruption, but really our refusal to deal with how we became who we really are is beyond corruption, it’s a cancer eating away at the centers of our humanity. Admittedly, this is a rather odd way to start a music review but what I’m really trying to do is help all of us expand our Sasa consciousness. We have so many ancestors who have slipped into the Zamani state simply because we don’t remember them, we don’t make an effort to learn who they were, what they did. Sasa is the now time, the time of our awareness. The dead are not truly dead until they are unremembered. Zamani is the ancient time, not just past but more importantly Zamani refers to the period when our specifics are unremembered. Zamani knows the past in general, Sasa keeps the past alive specifically through our awareness and celebration. Although he is a recent ancestor, we really, really need to know Johnny Griffin—many others also, but for now I am focusing on Johnny Griffin. John Arnold Griffin III was born April 24, 1928 in Chicago and died July 25, 2008 in France of a heart attack at the age of 80. This Griff Plays Monk Mixtape is but one small candle on the altar of our musical consciousness. He deserves a luminous candelabra but for now let’s just admire the sterling flame, tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin lit in playing the music of Thelonious Monk—and surely you have at least heard glimmers of Monk’s musical light. I first remember hearing Griff on that famous 1957 Art Blakey and Thelonious Monk recording on Atlantic records. The word was that Blakey was the best drummer ever for Monk (I kind of lean toward Frankie Dunlop but Dunlop came later). Certainly during the fifties whenever Blakey and Monk hooked up the results were sonic incadescense. Monk hammered the keys like a blacksmith anviling iron and Blakey’s bellowing drums dropped beats that stoked the fire full up. That one recording forever committed me to the music of these two men; over sixty years later the heat of their musical combustion has not abated. We listen today and go “wow, them cats is doing it!” At the time although I was struck by the tenor player, I was so enthralled by Blakey and Monk, I didn’t give Griff his full props. Then came my second exposure. Griff and Monk recorded live in New York City in the late fifties. This was Monk’s quartet at the Five Spot. John Coltrane had just departed after a memorable stint that produced legendary music. Griff more than held his own. Griff would command: "I got it", and unfurl blistering unaccompanied solo fuselages, his fingers racing up and down the horn’s metal as though it were too hot to hold still. Oh, the way Griff played: heavy bottom honks, high pitched squeals, and every damn thing in between. Oh, goddamn he was playing the shit out of his horn. Following the 1958 stint with Monk, Griff hooked up with heavy-throated tenor saxophonist Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis in a two-tenor combo that became known as the tough tenors. Recording between 1960 and 1962, they took sibling rivalry to Olympic levels as their two contrasting but complementing horn approaches butted heads like two rams fighting for supremacy on one hill. The Mixtape includes tracks from a 1961 album they did celebrating the music of Thelonious Monk. And then I didn’t hear no more. I didn’t know that Griff departed for distant shores in 1963. I didn’t realize how terrible the fifties had become for sensitive blacks who were proud of who they were and also extremely talented as artists. Artists are sensitive. They have to be if they are to truly be deep artists. They have to feel what is happening. And what was happening in the fifties to black men who dared speak out and up for their human rights. Well, let’s just say, what Congress and the State Department did to Paul Robeson in rescinding his passport and sicking the FBI and CIA hellhounds on Robeson trail was not an anomaly. Their demonic quest to destroy black manhood was business as usual in the fifties and early sixties. Johnny Griffin had served in the military during the forties, he couldn’t put up with being treated as less than a man. Like Sidney Bechet and numerous others before him, Johnny Griffin fled to Europe and spent the majority of his post World War 2 lifetime in France. He might have been gone but he never lost the sound. Included at the conclusion of the Mixtape are two post-fifties tracks. The first a February 2000 duet with pianist Horace Parlan during which they slow-burn explore the beautiful Monk composition “Pannonica.” The second is "Rhythm-A-Thing," a five-alarm blazing maelstrom, a rip roaring conflagaration from 1967. Because of his diminutive statue contrasted to his huge tenor sax sound, Griff was nicknamed the “little giant.” He had speed to burn, a quicksilver harmonic sense, and a passionate lyrical ability to shape phrases. At another time we will do a fuller investigation of Griff’s career and will certainly highlight his marvelous ballad playing but for today the effort is simply to move him into our Sasa awareness. Learn his name, recognize his sound. Keep alive the beauty of a tenor saxophonist whose raw intensity and bluesy lyricism in interpreting the music of Thelonious Monk was stellar. One listen and you will be star struck. His firelight deserves not only to be remembered, he is worthy of canonization, worthy of living forever in our Sasa time. —Kalamu ya Salaam Griff Plays Monk Mixtape Playlist Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers With Thelonious Monk – Art Blakey & Thelonious Monk 01 “I Mean You” 02 “Blue Monk” Misterioso – Thelonious Monk Quartet 03 “Blues Five Spot” 04 “Let’s Cool One” Thelonious In Action – Thelonious Monk Quartet 05 “Coming On the Hudson” 06 “Rhythm-a-Ning” 07 “Epistrophy (Theme)” Lookin’ At Monk – Johnny Griffin and Eddie Lockjaw Davis 08 “Epistrophy” 09 “ ’Round Midnight” 10 “Well, You Needn’t” You Leave Me Breathless – Johnny Griffin 11 “Rhythm-A-Thing” Close Your Eyes – Johnny Griffin 12 “Pannonica”
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