Friday, December 18, 2015

Johnny Hodges: An Appreciation

While I have often cited Benny Carter as my chief influence on the alto sax, my very first influence was Johnny Hodges.  The first time I heard that lush, lyrical and absolutely haunting tone, I knew why I chose the alto sax as my main horn.  Johnny made it sing like no one else, and Charlie Parker even called him "the Lily Pons of the alto sax", a reference to a very popular opera singer of the day.  No one has ever sounded like Johnny Hodges.  Some have imitated him, but no one has really ever quite duplicated him.

John Cornelius Hodges was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts on July 25, 1906.  Harry Carney, the great baritone player and his bandmate in the Ellington Orchestra was a neighbor.  He began by playing the piano and then the soprano saxophone, in which he was largely self-taught. When the great soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet came to Boston to appear in a show called Jimmy Cooper's Black and White Revue, Hodges, then 14, went to see the show and stuck up a friendship with Bechet, who encouraged him and gave him some lessons on the soprano. Eventually, Hodges would make a reputation for himself around Boston before moving to New York City in 1924.  He played for not only Sidney Bechet, but also in the bands of Lucky Roberts, Lloyd Scott and Chick Webb, before finally joining Duke Ellington's band where he would be the featured soloist for the rest of his life, with the exception of 1951-55 when he left the band and went solo.  However he rejoined the orchestra in 1955 and was there until his death on May 11, 1970, from a heart attack in his dentist's office.

Johnny, along with Benny Carter and Willie Smith, was one of the original big band alto stylists.  By that time, he switched to alto saxophone so as not to be compared to Bechet, and only played the soprano rarely, and after being featured in Benny Goodman's famous Carnegie Hall concert in 1938 playing a soprano solo, never played it again after that.  He was given the nickname "Rabbit" because of his fondness for lettuce and tomato sandwiches.  His tone was lush, lyrical and smooth, and he excelled on ballads and slow blues, always emphasizing tone over technique and flash, although if you ever listen carefully, there is a tremendous amount of technique and control needed to play the way he did.   He made frequent use of glissandos, making the saxophone sound as if it used a slide instead of keys.  Ellington wrote many pieces with his various soloists in mind, as did Billy Strayhorn, his alter ego, and they wrote probably more for Hodges than just about anyone else.  Among them, my personal favorite "Prelude To A Kiss", and also, "Isfahan", "Jeep's Blues", "Daydream", "A Flower Is A Lovesome Thing" "Don't Get Around Much Anymore", among others.


While Johnny Hodges spent the majority of his career with Ellington, and aside from his hiatus from the band from 1951-55, Hodges also recorded with Lawrence Welk, Billy Taylor and Oliver Nelson.  He also made recordings with Billy Strayhorn without Ellington, and other Ellington sidemen.  He was a big influence on Ben Webster, whose smooth tenor was based on Hodges alto.  John Coltrane also cited Hodges as his main influence, and even briefly played in one of Hodges bands during his hiatus from Ellington.

On stage, it was often hard to reconcile the stance and lack of expression in Hodges' face with the expressive, lush and swooping tone coming out of his saxophone.  Ellington stated that women in the audience often swooned when Johnny played a ballad.  When I hear Johnny playing a ballad or a slow blues, it just makes me close my eyes, sway and go "yeeeaahhh!"


 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. Our band will never sound the same."

"He gets an idea, thinks up a countermelody, and you end up with a whole new song," said Ellington trombonist Lawrence Brown of Hodges.

Johnny Hodges played a Conn 6M saxophone, then switched to the Buescher Aristocrat "Big B", then the Buescher 400, and finally a custom made Vito, made in France, just for Johnny.  He left behind a rich musical legacy with one of the greatest orchestras and composers in jazz, as well as his own orchestras and collaborations with other bandleaders and musicians.  Although I can't imagine anyone who plays the saxophone not knowing who Johnny Hodges is, just in the event you are not familiar with him, or need a reminder, I have included links to his music to reacquaint you with one of the greatest saxophone masters ever.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4EnjP2NGcE





https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgVm4NLMBcI

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-iJU8ec0DWk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZA_JxaA1ddA

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ad_NFvmyPvA










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