Duke Ellington was the envy of bandleaders far and wide for the privilege he enjoyed in presenting Johnny Hodges for nearly 40 years. Notwithstanding a four-year run as the leader of his own band in the early ‘50’s, Hodges worked with Duke from 1928 until his sudden death on May 11, 1970. During that time, Ellington composed 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. As for ballads, several of Billy Strayhorn’s best-known works, “Day Dream,” “After All,” “Passion Flower,” “The Star-Crossed Lovers,” “Isfahan,” and “Blood Count” became standards through Hodges’ exquisite interpretive skills.
Hodges, aka Jeep and Rabbit, died during a visit to his dentist only days after recording “Blues for New Orleans,” the opening title of Ellington’s New Orleans Suite. He was 63, and like the man who’d recorded “Preacher Blues” a decade earlier, was still playing the blues with declamatory authority.
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.“
Rabbit’s admirers were a diverse lot. John Coltrane cited him as his first influence and was a sideman in Hodges’s band in 1953. In a 1960 interview with Downbeat he said, “He still kills me.” Trane 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 must surely have approved of 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.”
My personal favorite among the many ways Ellington introduced Hodges is on this performance of “Jeep’s Blues” in 1957: “If you’ve heard of the saxophone, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard of Johnny Hodges.” ‘Nuff said! Listen for Duke encouraging Jeep to “tell ’em what happened.”
Hodges was born in Cambridge on July 25, 1907 and raised in Boston, right around the corner from Harry Carney, the baritone saxophonist who enjoyed an even longer tenure with Ellington from 1926 until his death in 1974. In this clip of “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” Hodges, Carney, and Paul Gonsalves, another son of the Bay State, are neatly framed together during an ensemble passage beginning at 2:15.