Tuesday, May 12, 2009

When Griff Was Great

I received Johnny Griffin's first Blue Note album, Introducing Johnny Griffin, in the mail today. It was recorded way back in 1956, with a great rhythm section: Wynton Kelly, Curly Russell, and Max Roach. Listening to this album has washed out a sonic bad taste that has been lingering for going on two years now. I heard Griffin live at Duke University in the fall of 2007, as part of Duke's "Following Monk" series dedicated to Thelonious Monk. Griffin was featured as a soloist with the Duke University Jazz Ensemble, and the program was heavy on Monk tunes.

Though I knew Griffin was 79 at the time, I did not know what to expect from him. His articulation was sloppy, he was dragging way behind the beat (which was never his style), his lines were short, his musical vocabulary limited. I withheld judgment, thinking that perhaps what I was hearing actually evidenced a reconception of style: a distillation, a paring-down that often occurs with elder jazz musicians. But after a few tunes, I had to admit it to myself: the Little Giant sounded finished. To be sure, on a slow blues (I think it may have been "Misterioso", but I can't be sure) he pulled out a few burly, bluesy lines befitting his beginnings in R&B - perhaps the soul was willing, but the body just not able. The audience at large reacted vociferously to these few, precious, beautiful lines of saxophone: large roars filled the hall. With them the crowd seemed to be saying, "Yes - we knew you still had it in you! That's Johnny Griffin! We remember you."

And that night, and the next day, I thought about what happens when musicians get old, when they lose their stuff. And how often this happens in the jazz world, and often fans get to hear it. Should one wish, one could put on the recordings Lester Young made in the last year of his life: the sound of a man barely able to blow enough air through the saxophone to produce a tone. One could also hear a strung-out, withered Chet Baker in the last years of his tumultous life, blowing ragged, weak trumpet. And such events become embedded in jazz lore in an unfortunately perverse way. The frailty of players and the diminution of their abilities are regarded sometimes with deluded romanticism, sometimes with morbid fascination, but rarely with the understanding that decrepitude can take hold, that these unsightly endings to the lives of such "legends" neither negate the pinnacles of what they've accomplished nor amplify whatever greatness they may possess. It also occurred to me that I have never read, at least within jazz scholarship, a serious discussion of the cultural dynamics around the passing and mourning of musicians.

I had this bad taste, as I call it, from that Johnny Griffin concert. While I'm glad that Introducing has helped wash out the taste, it wasn't that I wanted to forget the concert. It's just that I want to remember the Little Giant all over the changes, hyperactively edging ahead of the beat. Like others in Duke's Baldwin Auditorium, I applauded those few great blues lines Griffin mustered up to pay tribute, to tell him, "I know who you are, what you have accomplished." It was a very poignant moment, and one that made me glad I had attended the concert. Though not an especially satisfying moment musically, it was an eminently human one. For musical and aesthetic satisfaction, and to hear Griffin joyously ripping into a tune, I heartily recommend Introducing Johnny Griffin.

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