August 3, 2008

Jazz World Sees Passing of Icons Griffin, Bullock


It hasn't been a good few days for jazz's health. On July 25, saxophonist icon Johnny Griffin, 80, passed away, as did the gifted, versatile guitarist Hiram Bullock, who was only 52.

The loss of Griffin reminds us of those stories that are timed annually to Memorial Day and/or Veterans Day. I speak of the "features" that we read each late May and mid-November covering the rapid death rate of those who served during World War I and World War II.

At this point, there is next to no one remaining from "the war to end all wars" and those who served and fought during "The Big One" are now dying at a noticeably prodigious and alarming rate. My own father, for instance, who was stationed in Africa, is an increasingly fragile 86.

The jazz equivalent - of which "Griff" was a stalwart first- generation member - is the death rate of the musicians whose beginnings tie them directly the post-World War II world of bebop. These days, fewer and fewer of those mighty men - and a few women - remain not only alive but also perform regularly. And it's difficult not to pay attention to how quickly they are now dying. There are few first-generation beboppers who are in good health and capable of bringing their "A game" to the stage with regularity - and that is cause for sadness.

Known as "The Little Giant," Griffin might have been small in physical stature but surely had one of the biggest sounds. A Chicago native whose professional beginnings date to his early teens, Griffin attended DuSable High School on the city's South Side. Like so many others, Griffin received influential instruction from Capt. Walter Dyett, the legendary and highly celebrated Windy City educator who had a knack for recognizing talent.

Griffin actually started on the alto saxophone. His schoolmate group was called the Baby Band; he also reportedly worked with blues guitarist and singer T-Bone Walker. After high school, Griffin left Chicago and gained entry to Lionel Hampton's Big Band, switching from alto saxophone to tenor, which would become synonymous with his life's work.

Like so many of his peers became a bebop devotee, influenced - both on and off the bandstand - by fellow saxophonist Charlie Parker, who played alto rather then tenor, and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Born in 1928, Griffin was in his 20s when bebop's ascension was in full force. He fell in love with - and was able to execute - the multi-noted, brilliantly fast-paced but somehow lyrical bebop style - and did so, as Parker did, with something more then a hint of the blues.

Griffin would join forces with equally talented artists. In particular, his work with Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis gained measurable notoriety. The two men complemented each other, with their sounds fitting perfectly together. They were fast; they were gruff; they had a big, thick sound generally with a noteworthy piano-bass-drums rhythm section serving as their foundation as they traded riffs and played off and against each other. They help create a sub-school known as "tough tenors" - a style categorized by sometimes 20- minute on-stage battles.

Parker's 1955 passing signaled something of a psychological death of bebop and the birth of its successor: "hard-bop." A little sharper and a tad more soulful, Griffin, along with the likes of Cannonball Adderley and Art Blakey, felt right at home.

In the late 1950s, he would also regularly work with Thelonious Monk and is heard on a number of classic albums on the Riverside label. It was the 1960s and the rise of the avant-garde and "free- jazz" movement that made Griffin and his ilk feel underappreciated and unwanted.

Griffin would settle in Europe, first living in The Netherlands and then for most of the past two decades or more in France, where he died. Until the recent past, Griffin would make an annual pilgrimage to the United States, returning to Chicago to perform each April at the Jazz Showcase in celebration of his birthday.

As for Bullock, there are many who consider him one of the most gifted guitarists of his generation - or any generation. His innovative sound has been subtly influential on peers and the next generation of guitarists; at times, his impact - at least within the industry - has been considered Jimi Hendrix-like.

An original member of the "Late Night with David Letterman" band, Bullock was heard nightly along side Paul Schaeffer for the program's first two years. As versatile as they come, he is the prototype of a musician that is hard to characterize, hard to pin down stylistically. For want of a label, people placed him in the "jazz-rock" school of music.

It's understandable, given whom he played with. A leader in his own right who issued a number of titles, Bullock was still mostly known as a collaborator. A sampling of his work places him in a wide array of company, including a number of high-profile pop stars such as Billy Joel ("The Stranger") and Sting ("Nothing Like the Sun").

Bullock was born in Osaka, Japan, the son of military parents. Baltimore became his childhood home and he attended the city's esteemed Peabody Conservatory of Music and then the University of Miami, which had one of the strongest jazz programs and included the likes of Bobby Watson. There he would also cross paths with, study with and then work alongside Pat Metheny and Jaco Pastorious, among others. Such associations led him to New York and to the likes of saxophonist David Sanborn, with whom he would work from the mid- 1970s through 1990.

Throughout his career, Bullock demonstrated a pliable approach to his career. One night, you could see him at Sweet Basil holding down the guitar chair as a member of Gil Evans Orchestra, working alongside Carla Bley; the next night, you could find him on stage with Schaeffer as part of "The World's Most Dangerous Band"; a minute later, he could be with the Brecker Brothers - or simply leading his own band. Bullock was a fusionist, a musical chameleon to the max.

Tribune columnist Jon Poses also serves as the executive director of the "We Always Swing" Jazz Series. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]

Originally published by JON W. POSES.

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