Remembering the 'Little Giant,' jazz saxophonist Johnny Griffin

"Where do I begin?" asks pianist Weiss, whose Griffin homage will feature the formidable Chicago tenor player Eric Schneider, plus bassist Lorin Cohen and drummer George Fludas.

"First and foremost, (he was) an exuberant personality (with) an artistic aesthetic of the highest order. … Those are two different things that don't always go together, but with him they did.

"You wanted to play your best. He embodied all the kinds of things that make jazz what it is – the essence of jazz, of self-expression, but also the human element, the falling down and getting back up side of the human experience, I guess, to be philosophical about it."

Griffin's biggest tumble occurred a few years before his death, when he suffered a stroke. Yet he continued playing, undaunted.

"After his stroke, he had some diminished capacity as far as his sound and his endurance," recalls Weiss.

"I say that, but then I would say we played an engagement at the Blue Note in New York around that time, after his stroke, and he didn't know when to take the horn out of his mouth.

"We were still playing fast tempos, and I was astounded at his endurance, inspite of his reduced capacity."

For Chicago's Griffin tribute, Weiss hopes to play several tunes that Griffin wrote and performed often in Chicago – such as "Hot Saki" and "Chicago Calling" – as well as the standards that were integral to the saxophonist's repertoire.

All of which should remind the listening public of a musician who's not nearly as celebrated outside jazz circles as he should be.

No doubt his decision to live so much of his adult life as an expat in France had something to do with that, though Griffin never doubted the move for a minute.

"Actually, I went to Europe without any idea that I'd never move back," he told me. "It's just that the way they received jazz musicians in Europe was quite different from what they do in the States, and it's still like that even today.

"Jazz has a high profile in Europe. And people just seem to have more leisure time to enjoy the things of aesthetic value than they seem to have over here. …

"Even now, whenever I'm in Paris," added Griffin, "just going out to sit on the Champs-Elysses, I feel like I belong, not even knowing the language. There's something about the atmosphere in France, it gives you a feeling of well-being."

Nevertheless, he kept coming back home to Chicago to play.

"Oh yeah, that'll never change," he said. "In fact, I hear jazz is going pretty good in Chicago."

Thanks, in part, to the exalted standard that Griffin set for everyone else.

The Michael Weiss Quartet plays "A Tribute to Johnny Griffin," with sets at 7:30 and 9 p.m. Thursday at the University of Chicago's Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St.; $10; 773-702-2787 or hydeparkjazzsociety.com or arts.uchicago.edu/content/logan-center.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich

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