Johnny Hodges is best remembered as the lead saxophone player of the legendary Duke Ellington band. Hodges, a soloist in his own right, was one of the first great saxophone players in the history of modern jazz. Adept at arranging as well as playing both soprano and alto saxophones, for 40 years Hodges played on almost every album Duke Ellington made and held a reputation as Ellington’s stalwart right-hand man. Hodges and his teacher, Sidney Bechet, are credited as two of the most significant soprano saxophone players in the history of twentieth century jazz. Many critics observed that Hodges effectively achieved a quasi-vocal quality with his instrument. He turned “Jeep’s Blues” into a jazz classic, and is remembered as one of the earliest and greatest jazz saxophonists.
John Cornelius Hodges was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 25, 1907. His family later moved to Hammond Street in Boston. Hodges played both piano and drums as a child before taking up saxophone at age 13. A few days after he acquired a soprano saxophone, Hodges forced an opportunity to meet Sidney Bechet backstage at a burlesque house in Boston. Bechet heard Hodges play “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms,” and encouraged the young saxophonist. Soon after, Hodges acquired an alto sax, which he preferred to the soprano. He experimented on his own, and took lessons sporadically for several years due to lack of funds. After he encountered Bechet a second time, Hodges’s interest in the soprano saxophone was rekindled and Bechet’s respect for Hodges’s talent was renewed. Hodges studied and worked with Bechet and eventually performed as a warm-up to Bechet’s act at Club Bechet in New York City. The young and talented Hodges also shared the spotlight with Bechet as they performed duets. Hodges, who emulated Bechet’s style, continued his association with Bechet later when the two appeared separately but on the same bill at the Rhythm Club in 1924 and together again at Club Basha in 1925. Hodges also studied with the late Benny Waters for a time before joining forces with Ellington. Waters and Hodges played in a band together around 1920 in Boston, at a time when Waters taught saxophone in between gigs and radio shows. Waters recalled Hodges as a truly natural talent on the saxophone.
It was outside of Massachusetts that Hodges eventually took up with Ellington, after playing around Boston and New York during the early 1920s. Hodges joined the legendary Duke Ellington band on May 18, 1926. Despite a stoic on-stage demeanor and distinct inability to project his personality during performance, Hodges
For the Record…
Bom John Cornelius Hodges, July 25, 1907, Cam bridge, MA; (died May 11, 1970); Education: Studied with Sidney Bechet and Benny Waters.
Worked in clubs in Boston and New York with Sidney Bechet, 1920s; joined Duke Ellington orchestra, May 18, 1926; released with Ellington, Jazz Party, Columbia Records; Blues in Orbit, Columbia Records; Side by Side, Verve Records; formed own band 1950–55; returned to Ellington band, August 1955; released many solo albums including, Everybody Knows, Impulse Records, 1965; posthumous releases, Caravan, Prestige Records, 1992; Johnny Hodges with Lawrence Welk’s Orchestra, Ranwood Records, 1994.
also earned a reputation for his whimsical sense of humor. The audience, on occasion, overheard Hodges’ spontaneous asides through the stage microphone: calling a bet with a fellow band member; airing a curt grievance at another musician; expressing momentary displeasure.
He developed a massive following based on sheer talent. An enormously talented young man, he developed his skills with the Ellington band and in time achieved recognition as a solo artist. The original Hodges style was to play very fast, in double time, and very frequently on the soprano saxophone. After 1940, his style evolved and took a much slower pace at which point Hodges focused almost exclusively on playing the alto saxophone, which he did with great poise. Indeed Ellington not only arranged some of Hodges solo recordings, but played back up piano for Hodges as well.
Hodges toured around the world as a member of the Ellington band. In the 1920s and early 1930s the group played New York’s Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, the London Palladium, and Europe’s Trocadero. They performed for royalty and met with the same. The band toured the southern United States on various occasions, including Texas and New Orleans. Despite the precarious racial climate of the United States during those years, Ellington’s son, Mercer, reported that they, “… were feted like… heroes.” An overseas tour in 1939 took the band to Scandinavia.
During the 1940s the band’s movements were limited because of political restrictions associated with World War II. Several of the members became restless and, in 1951, Hodges made a decision to break out on his own. He started his own group and brought itto New York. The band included Harold Land and Richie Powell. During this hiatus from Ellington, in June of 1952, Hodges made an album called Just Friends with the great Charlie Parker, who was an ardent fan of Hodges. The two collaborated in a studio jam for an album, along with Benny Carter and Ben Webster. Hodges also recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, in 1953. In August of 1955 Hodges returned to Ellington’s band, to the mutual benefit of all. The late Mercer Ellington, in a memoir of his father, stated that the contributions of Johnny Hodges “… were highly important and … enriched the band’s tonal fabric.” In the years after his reunion with the Ellington band, Hodges continued to make solo albums and to tour and perform with the Ellington group.
Hodges was virtually illiterate from a musical standpoint, mostly due to a lack of formal lessons when he first learned to play as a child. Although his reading skills improved as he played with Ellington’s band, Hodges preferred, whenever possible, to play by ear or from memory—and to improvise—rather than to follow the written parts. Despite his poor musical literacy, Hodges was highly disciplined and played directly from the heart. He further displayed a natural ability to embellish and accentthe music he played for maximum emotion. His eloquent style elicited praise from his contemporaries as well as from modern historians of the jazz genre. Hodges influenced many prominent jazz and new age saxophonists including John Klemmer and the late John Coltrane.
Personally, Hodges was known as an epicure and was well received in the most elite restaurants, where chefs were known to prepare special dishes exclusively for him and his companions. Hodges was himself a culinary whiz. Yet, despite Hodges’s reputation as a connoisseur, he nonetheless earned the nickname Rabbit, because of his unique fondness for bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches—sans bacon. Hodges also held a reputation as a lucky gambler, winning large keno jackpots and poker hands with apparent ease.
As the years passed Hodges suffered from heart problems, which he refused to address. He died suddenly on May 11, 1970. Hodges’s passing was painful to Duke Ellington, who’s eulogy of Johnny Hodges was quoted freely, “[O]ur band will never sound the same.”
Masters of Jazz, Vol. 9, Storyville (Denmark), 1960.
At the Berlin Sportpalast, Pablo, 1961.
Everybody Knows, Impulse, 1965.
Caravan, Prestige, 1992.
Johnny Hodges with Lawrence Welk’s Orchestra, Ranwood Records, 1994.
Classic Solos (1928–42), Topaz Jazz, 1994.
Hodge Podge, Columbia, 1995.
Jeep’s Blues, Living Era, 1996.
Used To Be Duke, Verve.
Triple Play, RCA Victor.
Vol. 35 — Verve Jazz Masters, Verve.
(with Duke Ellington Orchestra), Jazz Party in Stereo, Columbia.
(with Duke Ellington Orchestra) Blues in Orbit, Columbia.
(with Duke Ellington Orchestra) Side by Side, Verve.
Dance, Stanley, The World of Duke Ellington, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970.
Ellington, Edward Kennedy (Duke), Music Is My Mistress, DaCapo Press, Inc., New York, 1973.
Ellington, Mercer with Stanley Dance, Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1978.
Jazz Rambler, March/April 1998.