Johnny Hodges: Son of the Commonwealth, Pride of Ellingtonia
Duke Ellington was the envy of bandleaders far and wide for the privilege he enjoyed in presenting Johnny Hodges as a member of his orchestra 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,” “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing,” 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 still playing the blues with his customary declamatory authority.
Several years earlier, Ellington 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. “ Clark Terry echoed Duke in saying, “Above all, he’s always true to himself.” John Coltrane cited him as his first influence and was a sideman with Hodges in 1953. In a 1960 interview with Down Beat he said, “He still kills me;" a few years earlier Trane remembered Hodges's 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 surely approved of Charlie Parker’s description of Hodges as the “Lily Pons of his instrument.” (That's Bird patting Rabbit's belly and Benny Carter in the foreground in the photo above; the alto giants convened in 1952 for a Norman Granz jam session that included the Hodges classic, "Funky Blues.") My personal favorite among the many encomia to Hodges was uttered by Duke when he introduced "Jeep's Blues" on the 1957 All-Star Road Band concert: “If you’ve heard of the saxophone, ladies and gentlemen, you’ve heard of Johnny Hodges.”
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 another son of the Commonwealth, Paul Gonsalves, are neatly framed together during an ensemble passage at 2:15.
Here's Hodges in 1959 playing “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be," the classic blues that Rabbit introduced on an Ellington small group session in 1941.
And here’s great footage from the mid-60’s of a medley that begins with the blues and includes two Hodges staples, “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).” Listen for the jousting between Duke and Rabbit beginning at 1:40