Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Hodges, Johnny (John Cornelius)

Alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges may have been stonefaced on stage, but only because he let his horn do the talking. Duke Ellington held his “sultry solos” in such high esteem that when Hodges died, Duke said, “Johnny is not replaceable. Because of this great loss our band will never sound the same.”

John Cornelius “Johnny” Hodges was born July 25, 1906, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His mother and other family members played piano. His family moved across the river to Boston in his early teens. One neighbor was a kid who later became the great baritone sax player in the Ellington band, Harry Carney. Carney said that the origin of Hodges' childhood nickname, “Rabbit,” was due to his liking for lettuce and tomato sandwiches, “which he was always chewing like a rabbit."

Hodges actually started out on piano and drums. The latter turned out to be a precedent because his son, Johnny Hodges, Jr., became a drummer; he played on some tracks with his father including one he wrote with the boy in mind, titled “Little Brother,” which can be heard on the Impulse CD Everybody Knows.”

In his teens, Hodges took up the saxophone, at first the soprano. When he was 13 Johnny caught a show played by Sidney Bechet in Boston, and went backstage afterwards to meet the soprano sax master. Bechet was a key inspiration for for the boy, who took lessons from him.

Over time, Hodges found his voice on the alto sax. He played with Willie “the Lion” Smith’s quartet at New York’s Rhythm Club in 1924, then played alongside Bechet at the Club Basha in 1925. In late 1926, he joined Chick Webb’s band at the Savoy Ballroom. He briefly played with the Lucky Roberts Orchestra then moved over to Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in May of 1928.

In his early months with Ellington's band, Hodges learned still more from some of the superb musicians Ellington had brought in, such as Otto Hardwick and Barney Bigard. Hodges gained confidence and began to play a more prominent role within the band.

Just a few months after Hodges joined Ellington, in November 1928, he was featured on the lovely, soulful track, “The Blues with a Feelin’.” Johnny plays soprano sax on this track, and his musical debt to Bechet is very evident, right down to the intense vibrato.

Six months later Hodges played alto sax on “Beggar’s Blues,” an early demonstration of the soulful, impassioned blues playing he became known for. As Albert Murray once said, “Bessie Smith could hardly sing the blues better than Johnny Hodges could.” He is joined by the masterful Barney Bigard; the result is a marvelous alto sax-clarinet duet enhancing the main theme and creating very interesting musical texture.

By the mid- to late-1930s Hodges had become a leading soloist and star attraction of the Ellington band. Especially after the Ellington small group recording of “Jeep’s Blues” in March of 1938, Hodges' impassioned blues playing was increasingly admired. As Helen Oakley Dance wrote in the liner notes to the 1968 LP album compilation of small group sessions from 1938 and 1939, “The small-band sound, the band-within-a-band, had captivated popular imagination, and Johnny Hodges’ talents dominated the new trend.”

Johnny's playing, especially on alto sax, got deeper and richer, more soulful and stylish. He began recording the second sort of tune he became highly celebrated for: beautiful ballads. Duke would often write and arrange music to showcase the strengths of his different great soloists. He wrote a series of such tunes for Johnny Hodges. For example, in 1938 came the classic “Prelude to a Kiss;” Hodges recorded it with the full Ellington band, then recorded this equally fine version with a small group from the band.

Two more fine examples are the lovely1940 track “Warm Valley,” on which Johnny blew the most sensuous lines, painting a gorgeous aural soundscape, and 1941's “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be,” written by Duke's son Mercer.

Recordings like this reveal why Tony Bennett, the great pop and jazz singer, would say “Hodges? The best singer in the world!”

Ellington took a further step when he commissioned or wrote tone-poem pieces for Hodges, which transcend the conventional ballad. “Passion Flower” from July 1941 and written by Duke’s musical partner, Billy Strayhorn, was a prime example.

Jumping ahead in time, another of those unique tone poems was “Isfahan” from 1964. Both of these compositions make the best use of Hodges' exquisite tone, nuance, and liquidly lyrical lines, and they create a distinct musical atmosphere.

In 1951, Hodges left the Ellington band. The fact that Ellington had gathered so many virtuoso musicians and melded them into a single unit understandably created some tensions. Duke had also developed a habit of incorporating the phrases and larger musical ideas he heard his bandmembers play into his compositions.

"He gets an idea, thinks up a countermelody, and you end up with a whole new song," said Ellington trombonist Lawrence Brown of Hodges. “Yet nobody seems to recognize him as the composer he is.” Ellington did give occasional co-composing credit to band members, but Hodges apparently came to feel that he had not received the credit he deserved, when he heard his musical ideas turn up in Ellington-penned hits. Things reached a point that on stage, after a solo, Hodges would even look at Duke and pretend to be counting money, in front of the audience.

While on his own, Hodges led his own combo and made a number of recordings; they tended to be a mix of Ellingtonia, notable other jazz and blues tunes, and some of Johnny’s own songs. A most significant recording session, but not with Hodges as leader, was with producer Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic (JATP) roadshow. "Funky Blues" is a 14-minute "master class in the blues" Granz organized in July 1952 to capture the excitement of these live shows, with the era's three premier alto sax players, Hodges, Charlie Parker and Benny Carter, as well as tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, trumpeter Charlie Shavers, pianist Oscar Peterson, bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Barney Kessel.

In 1955 Hodges came back to Ellington, and remained with the bandleader until his death. During this second tenure, he also recorded with small groups of his own. One interesting example was “You Need to Rock.” Even though this was recorded in 1958, this was not an attempt to capitalize on the rising popularity of rock 'n roll; it was instead a by-then unfashionable, but still exciting, jump blues recorded with Ben Webster and Roy Eldridge.

Hodges may have reconciled with Ellington, but he was not shy about expressing his differences of opinion. “Once, at a concert-dance, when Ellington called an arrangement… by an ambitious composer with modernist leanings, the ensemble began to struggle through it, producing odd and un-Ellingtonian sounds," wrote Dan Morgenstern in his memoir Jazz People. "Hodges stopped playing, held up his part for all in the band to see, and slowly and deliberately tore the music paper in half. The piece was never called again."

Later Hodges-led sessions for the Impulse label from February of 1964 have been compiled in a CD, Everybody Knows – Johnny Hodges, where we hear him in the company of some of the Ellington band's greatest musicians: Paul Gonsalves, Ray Nance, Cat Anderson, Lawrence Brown, and Harry Carney. One fine track from this collection is Hodges’ own composition, the seven minute Everybody Knows,” with a very catchy main theme. Another, “310 Blues,” which was written by Billy Strayhorn for this session, offers more of those sublimely sensuous Hodges blues lines. Finally, there is a delightful medley of “I Let a Song go Out of My Heart” and “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.”

On May 11, 1970. Johnny Hodges died in his dentist’s office - probably after seeing the bill. At the time, Duke was hard at work on his New Orleans Suite, for which he hoped to persuade Johnny to take out his soprano saxophone once more to play ‘A Portrait of Sidney Bechet.’ But it was not to be. What a shame Ellington's idea couldn’t be realized; Johnny’s magnificent work on soprano, way back in 1928, shows what he could have done.

In his eulogy for Hodges, Duke Ellington said, “Johnny Hodges and his unique tonal personality have gone to join the ever so few inimitables—those whose sounds stand unimitated, to say the least."

Select Discography

The Okeh Ellington, “Columbia Jazz Masterpieces” series, 2-CD album (C2K 46177).

Ellington band recordings for Okeh/Columbia, 1927-1930. Includes “The Blues with a Feelin’,” and “Beggar’s Blues”

Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington

(originally an RCA-Smithsonian joint production with elaborate pamphlet by J. H. Hasse and 2 audio tapes; available on CD from the Buddha label.

A complete Ellington retrospective.

Jam Session (Verve 833564)

with Hodges, Charlie Parker, Benny Carter, and others. Includes “Funky Blues.”

Complete Johnny Hodges Sessions – 1951-1955 (Mosaic 6126)

Back to Back: Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges Play the Blues (Verve)

Small band playing blues classics, 3 from W. C. Handy, with help from Harry “Sweets” Edison.

Everybody Knows – Johnny Hodges (Impulse/GRP GRD-116)

Excellent Hodges-led sessions from 1964 and 1965, with Ellington band members; besides the tracks noted in the text, includes fine versions of "Mood Indigo" and "Jeep’s Blues."

Contributor: Dean Alger