Cornelius “Johnny” Hodges was an American alto saxophonist, best known for solo work with Duke Ellington’s big band. He played lead alto in the saxophone section for many years. Hodges was also featured on soprano saxophone, but refused to play soprano after 1946. He is considered one of the definitive alto saxophone players of the big band era (along with Benny Carter).
After beginning his career as a teenager in Boston, Hodges began to travel to New York and played with Lloyd Scott, Sidney Bechet, Luckey Roberts and Chick Webb. When Ellington wanted to expand his band in 1928, Ellington’s clarinet player Barney Bigard recommended Hodges. His playing became one of the identifying voices of the Ellington orchestra. From 1951 to 1955, Hodges left the Duke to lead his own band, but returned shortly before Ellington’s triumphant return to prominence – the orchestra’s performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival.
Hodges was born in the Cambridgeport neighborhood of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to John H. Hodges and Katie Swan Hodges, both originally from Virginia. After moving for a short period of time to North Cambridge, the family moved to Hammond Street in the South End of Boston, where he grew up with baritone saxophonist Harry Carney, and saxophonists Charlie Holmes and Howard E. Johnson. His first instruments were drums and piano. While his mother was a skilled piano player, Hodges was mostly self-taught. Once he became good enough, he played the piano at dances in private homes for eight dollars an evening. He had taken up the soprano saxophone by his teens. It was around this time that Hodges developed the nickname “Rabbit”, which some people believe arose from his ability to win 100-yard dashes and outrun truant officers, while others, including Carney, said he was called by that name because of his rabbit-like nibbling on lettuce and tomato sandwiches.
When Hodges was 14 he went with his eldest sister to see Sidney Bechet play in Jimmy Cooper’s Black and White Revue in a Boston burlesque hall. Hodges’ eldest sister introduced him to Bechet, who asked him to play something on the soprano saxophone he had brought with him. Hodges played “My Honey’s Lovin’ Arms” for Bechet, who was impressed with his skill and encouraged him to keep on playing. Hodges built a name for himself in the Boston area before moving to New York in 1924.
Hodges joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra in November 1928. He was one of the prominent Ellington Band members who featured in Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. Goodman described Hodges as “by far the greatest man on alto sax that I ever heard.” Charlie Parker called him “the Lily Pons of his instrument.”
Ellington’s practice of writing tunes specifically for members of his orchestra resulted in the Hodges specialties, “Confab with Rab”, “Jeep’s Blues”, “Sultry Sunset”, and “Hodge Podge”. Other songs recorded by the Ellington Orchestra which prominently feature Hodges’ smooth alto saxophone sound are “Magenta Haze”, “Prelude to a Kiss”, “Haupe” (from Anatomy of a Murder) – also notable are the “seductive” and hip-swaying “Flirtibird”, featuring the “irresistibly salacious tremor” by Hodges,“The Star-Crossed Lovers” from Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder suite, “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”, “Blood Count” and “Passion Flower”.
He had a pure tone and economy of melody on both the blues and ballads that won him admiration from musicians of all eras and styles, from Ben Webster and John Coltrane, who both played with him when he had his own orchestra in the 1950s, to Lawrence Welk, who featured him in an album of standards. His highly individualistic playing style, which featured the use of a wide vibrato and much sliding between slurred notes, was frequently imitated. As evidenced by the Ellington compositions named after him, he earned the nicknames Jeep and Rabbit – according to Johnny Griffin because “he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music.”
In the 1940s, Hodges played a Conn 6M (recognizable by its underslung neck) and later on a Buescher 400 (recognizable by its V-shaped bell-brace) alto saxophone. By the end of his career in the late 1960s, Hodges was playing a Vito LeBlanc Rationale alto (serial number 2551A), an instrument with unusual key-mechanisms (providing various alternative fingerings) and tone-hole placement, which gave superior intonation. Fewer than 2,000 were ever made. Hodges’ Vito saxophone was silver-plated and extensively engraved on the bell, bow, body and key-cups of the instrument.
Hodges’ last performances were at the Imperial Room in Toronto, less than a week before his May 11, 1970 death from a heart attack, suffered during a visit to the office of a dental surgeon. His last recordings are featured on the New Orleans Suite, which was only half-finished when he died. He was married twice; he had a daughter by his first wife, Bertha Pettiford, and a son (John C. Hodges II) and a daughter (Lorna Lee) by his second wife, Edith Cue.
The loss of Hodges’ sound prompted Ellington, upon learning of the musician’s death from a heart attack, to lament to JET magazine: “The band will never sound the same without Johnny.” In Ellington’s eulogy of Hodges, he said: “Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes—this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.”