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Top jazz saxophonist Johnny Griffin dies in France at 80

PARIS (AP) -- Jazz saxophonist Johnny Griffin, who played with America's greats from Thelonious Monk to Lionel Hampton but chose to live in France, died hours before a concert, his agent said Saturday. He was 80.

Griffin, whose career spanned more than a half-century, was found dead Friday morning in the music room of his home in Mauprevoir in western France by his wife Miriam, said Helene Manfredi, his agent for 28 years. The exact cause of death was not clear.

Griffin, who had played in the Riviera town of Hyeres on Monday, was to give a concert Friday night in the central Cher region.

A Chicago native, the diminutive Griffin took up the sax early on, eventually preferring the tenor saxophone and taking on the nickname "the Little Giant" for the big sounds he blew out of the instrument at breakneck speed.

Born April 24, 1928, Griffin got an early start at Chicago's Du Sable High School where Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington and other greats grew into their music. He graduated then toured with Hampton's big band. After two years in the army, he played in Chicago and New York, gaining a national reputation with his hard-bop improvisations. In the late 1950s, he played with Art Blakey and Monk.

In the early 1960s, the sax master moved to France where a collection of jazz artists was gathering. He then hopscotched to the Netherlands and back to France. He toured Europe, keeping up the pace even in his final years with recent concerts in Spain, Portugal and Tunisia, his agent said.

Griffin's 1958 album "A Blowing Session," a hard bop jam session with John Coltrane, drummer Art Blakey and others, remains among his signature works.

Griffin is survived by his wife Miriam and four children, one of whom lives in France and the others in the United States.

Funeral services were scheduled for Tuesday at the Poitiers Crematorium, Manfredi said.