Johnny Hodges was born 110 years ago today, July 25, 1906. A giant of jazz in his own right, Hodges was the most famous of Duke Ellington’s sidemen, and it was long said that Ellington was the envy of bandleaders far and wide for the privilege he enjoyed in presenting Hodges on a virtual nightly basis for forty years. Notwithstanding a four-year run as the leader of his own combo in the early fifties, the Cambridge-born, Boston-raised saxophonist worked with Duke from 1928 until 1970.
Ellington composed and arranged dozens of pieces that showcased Hodges’ powerful blues playing and his peerless artistry on ballads, many of which were fashioned from licks and melodic ideas first played by the saxophonist. Hodges helped popularize such Ellington songs as “Warm Valley,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Sentimental Lady,” and “Come Sunday.” And several of Billy Strayhorn’s best-known works, “Day Dream,” “Passion Flower,” “After All,” “Blood Count,” “Isfahan,” “A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing,” and “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” were immortalized through Hodges’ exquisite lyrical skills.
For The World of Duke Ellington, Duke told Stanley Dance, “Johnny Hodges has complete independence of expression. He says what he wants to say on the horn and that is it. He says it in his language, which is specific, and you could say that his is pure artistry.“
Hodges was equally renowned for his blues playing, which ranged from sensual and declamatory to mocking and sardonic. He died during a visit to his dentist on May 11, 1970, only days after recording “Blues for New Orleans,” the opening movement of Ellington’s New Orleans Suite. He was 63, and like the man who’d recorded scores of blues by then, was still playing the style with total conviction.
Known by the dual nicknames Rabbit and Jeep, his admirers were a diverse lot. John Coltrane, who began his career playing alto saxophone, cited him as his first influence and was a sideman in Hodges’s band in 1953. In a 1960 interview with Downbeat, Trane said, “He still kills me.” Coltrane remembered the band for its “true music. I never forget that. It really swung.” Lawrence Welk, whom Hodges recorded with in 1966, said, “He plays from the heart rather than from the notes…and he plays the prettiest saxophone of anyone I know.” Welk would surely have appreciated Charlie Parker’s description of Hodges as the “Lily Pons of his instrument.” Clark Terry echoed Duke in saying, “Above all, he’s always true to himself.”
I feel as moved by Hodges today as I did when I first heard him nearly fifty years ago on the memorial album for Billy Strayhorn, And His Mother Called Him Bill. Ellington intoned the name “Johnny Hodges” with reverence night after night, and on the occasion of this performance of “Jeep’s Blues” in 1957 said, “If you’ve heard of the saxophone, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard of Johnny Hodges.” Listen for Duke encouraging Jeep to “tell ’em what happened.”
We’ll hear Hodges throughout tonight’s Jazz à la Mode.