Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


HODGES, Johnny

(b Cornelius Hodge, 25 July '07, Cambridge MA; d 11 May '70 NYC) Alto sax, also soprano in early years. Nicknames 'Rabbit', 'Jeep'. Brother-in-law of Don Kirkpatrick, pianist/arr. for Don Redman. Played drums and piano, switched to sax at 14, had lessons from Sidney Bechet, followed Bechet into quartet led by Willie 'The Lion' Smith in NYC c'24; played with Chick Webb, Luckey Roberts; joined Duke Ellington '28 and stayed for life, except '51--5 when he led his own septet. With Benny Carter the most infl. alto player until Charlie Parker; if few musicians infl. others as much as Parker, Hodges did something just as remarkable: he continued to set a standard with his tone and his lyricism long after Parker was gone. Parker paid tribute to Hodges as 'the Lily Pons of the saxophone', comparing him to a great expressive coloratura. Hodges and Harry Carney on baritone were easily the most important colours in the Ellington tonal palette, and Rabbit remains one of the most beautiful voices of the century. He could play hot as anybody (on 'Bandana Babies', '28), but his strongest suit was lyricism: he set the tone on the gorgeous '38 recording of 'I Let A Song Go Out Of My Heart' (no. 1 hit); prolific freelance work incl. famous version of 'Sunny Side Of The Street' with Lionel Hampton '37. 'Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra' was an Ellington small-group unit; '38--9 sides incl. 'Jeep's Blues', 'The Jeep Is Jumpin'', 'Empty Ballroom Blues', etc (collected in Columbia two-CD set The Duke's Men; or a smaller Hodges-only compilation Hodge Podge on Epic), but eight tracks recorded '40--41 (The Great Ellington Units on Bluebird) have Jimmy Blanton on bass, and are among the finest small-group sides ever recorded by anybody: 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be' was an instant classic; 'Squatty Roo' was another Hodges nickname, and propelled by Blanton is a straight-ahead swinger; Hodges wrote 'Good Queen Bess' and named it for his mother; 'That's The Blues Old Man' marked the last time Hodges recorded on soprano saxophone and the first appearance of the riff which later became 'Happy-Go-Lucky Local', still later the '52 hit 'Night Train' by Jimmy Forrest. Ellington wrote 'Warm Valley' for Hodges and recorded it with the full band '40, but his amanuensis Billy Strayhorn now mastered the romantic, sensual side of Hodges, beginning with 'Day Dream' and 'Passion Flower' for the '40--41 small-group dates. (Passion Flower is another Hodges compilation from the period on Bluebird.)

Later, Hodges's own group '51--5 often sounded like an Ellington unit, using ducal songs and sidemen (but Hodges was also one of the first to employ John Coltrane, '54); the group had hits in the black chart '51--2 with 'Castle Rock' and 'A Pound Of Blues' on Mercury. Strayhorn had written 'A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing'; recorded as 'Passion' by Hodges on Verve '55 with Strayhorn on piano, it was a plea of almost unbearable eroticism. (The Complete Johnny Hodges Sessions 1951--1955 were collected on six Mosaic LPs '89.) There is fine Hodges on Ellington Indigos '57; And His Mother Called Him Bill '67, made after Strayhorn's death, contained several features for the voice that Strayhorn loved so much: a new version of 'Day Dream', 'After All' from '41, 'Blood Count' (Strayhorn's last composition). 'Blues For New Orleans' from the New Orleans Suite '70 was Hodges's last recording, and a fine one; Ellington was trying to get him to play soprano on 'Portrait Of Sidney Bechet', but he died before the session. Twelve tracks by the Johnny Hodges All-Stars made for Sunrise '47 incl. Strayhorn's 'A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing', 'Lotus Blossom' and 'Violet Blues' are combined with small-group tracks made for Mercer '50--51 on a Prestige CD The Johnny Hodges/Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn All-Stars, the set aka Caravan. Other Hodges albums incl. The Big Sound '57, Back To Back and Side By Side with Ellington, The Smooth One '59--60 all on Verve; two- disc Sportpalast, Berlin '61 on Pablo; Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges '64 on Impulse, a great bargain on CD, with added tracks from a '65 session. Triple Play '67 (three different octet sessions) is on Bluebird, as is In A Mellotone '66, a sextet with Wild Bill Davis; Johnny Hodges And Wild Bill Davis in Verve's Compact Jazz series compiles tracks from six sessions '61--6.