Johnny Hodges

Before Cambridge native and longtime Boston resident Johnny Hodges became one of the most renowned alto saxophonists in the world, as a member of the Duke Ellington orchestra, he experimented on a number of other instruments. He played drums, then piano, but more for fun than profit, then started to find his voice when he took up the soprano sax at the age of 14, soon developing a gorgeous tone — especially on ballads — that would set him apart. Though Hodges was mostly self-taught, he did get some mentoring from soprano player Sidney Bechet, and at one point in the mid-1920s, worked with Bechet in New York on weekends, while still living in Boston. Hodges also played with such luminaries as Chick Webb and Willie “the Lion” Smith, by which time he was trying to figure out which was the better fit for him: soprano or alto saxophone. The alto was chosen as his main instrument when, in 1928, at the age of 20, he was hired by Ellington. By 1940, he had stopped playing soprano altogether, and had started winning popularity polls in a number of music magazines. Hodges, whose nickname was Rab or Rabbit, became one of Ellington’s most famous soloists, and the jazz world was surprised when, in 1951, he quit to form his own small-format band. He had a hit song called “Castle Rock,” but four years later, Hodges ended that group, and was welcomed back to the ranks of Ellington’s orchestra, where he remained for the rest of his career, while regularly doing recording dates with other musicians including Earl Hines and Lawrence Welk (see the video here). Hodges died from a heart attack in a dentist’s chair in 1970 at the age of 62. His recordings are still being reissued, the most recent, on vinyl, was Ben Webster & Johnny Hodges – The Complete Jazz Cellar Session 1960, released in September, 2011 on the Wax Time label.
(by Ed Symkus)

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