Johnny Hodges: Sax Player for Duke Ellington and Beyond

Johnny Hodges: Sax Player for Duke Ellington and Beyond

Written by Anne E. Johnson

When you think of classic recordings by Duke Ellington’s big band, an important part of that sound in your head is Johnny Hodges on lead alto sax. Hodges joined Ellington in 1928, at the age of 21, already a jazz pro with a C.V. that included gigs with Sidney Bechet, Chick Webb, and others. Except for a few years in the early ʼ50s, Hodges stayed with the Ellington band until his death in 1970.

Born in 1907, Hodges grew up in Boston. That’s where he first heard Bechet play when he was 14. By then he was already mastering drums, piano, and soprano sax. He sometimes played soprano with Ellington in the early days, but by the mid-ʼ40s decided just to concentrate on alto. His sax playing has a distinctive character, full of vibrato and unabashedly lush, yet with the capacity to hop with high energy when needed.

All the time he was with the Duke, Hodges also played with other greats and produced dozens of solo and side projects. And that’s what we’ll cover here, or at least a small percentage of them. So, please enjoy these eight great tracks featuring Johnny Hodges.

1. Track: "What I'm Gotchere?"
Album:  In a Tender Mood
Label: Norgran/Columbia
Date: 1952

“Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra,” the LP’s front cover says. That’s how you know it was recorded between 1951 and 1955, the years Hodges had left the Ellington band to lead his own group. Columbia bought the rights from the original label, Norgran, and rereleased the record in 1956.

Among many interesting things about the tune “What I’m Gotchere?” is the fact that it was written by Hodges’ wife, Edith Cue. She composed a handful of blues-based tunes for her husband’s own projects as well as for Ellington (“Duke’s Jam,” for example). This is a great demonstration of Hodges’ lyric style, speaking with his instrument. The sweet trumpet sound is by Emmett Barry, and it’s worth sticking around for Lawrence Brown’s trombone work.


2. Track: "Madame Butterfly"
Album: Used to Be Duke
Label: Norgran/Columbia
Year: 1954

An endlessly astonishing aspect of Hodges’ output is the world-class quality of the people he worked with. On this track, we have no less than John Coltrane sitting in on tenor sax. The complex tune “Madam Butterfly” was co-written by Hodges and clarinetist/saxophonist Jimmy Hamilton.

The use of dynamics and syncopated accents is especially effective in this swinging track. At around 2:30, the two saxes, trumpet (Short Baker), and trombone (Brown) twist the melody around like a quadruple helix. Louie Bellson on drums holds things together with offhanded perfection.


3. Track: “An Ordinary Thing”
Album: The Big Sound
Label: Verve
Year: 1957

It’s no accident that Hodges switched at this point to the top-echelon Verve label. By now he’d rejoined Ellington, who spent the second half of the 1950s on an unstoppable ascent, thanks largely to his legendary appearance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which was released on vinyl as Ellington at Newport. Hodges picked the perfect time to come back on board.
This is one of several tracks written by trumpeter Cat Anderson, one of four trumpeters on this record (the others being Baker, Willie Cook, and the great Clark Terry).

The main phrases featuring Hodges and the lower saxes of Paul Gonsalves and Harry Carney, are exquisitely shaped, and they project like sculptural curly-cues against the blatting big-band horn sound that answers. All in all, this humorous number is a cross-stitch sampler of jazz instrument timbres.


4. Track: “Beale Street Blues”
Album: Back to Back: Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges Play the Blues
Label: Verve
Year: 1959

Many of Hodges’ side projects shared equal billing with other jazz greats. Happily, one of those albums was with the Duke himself. “Father of the Blues” W.C. Handy wrote this standard in 1917; Handy had just died in 1958, the year before this album was released. The ease of interplay between Ellington’s piano and Hodges’ alto is the glorious result of two sensitive, intellectual musicians after decades of working together. The trumpeter is Sweets Edison.


5. Track: “18 Carrots for Rabbit”
Album: Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges
Label: Verve
Year: 1960

Another great team-up in the Hodges archives is this one with post-bop/cool-jazz master Gerry Mulligan, who specialized in baritone sax. He was also a great composer and wrote half the tunes on the album. “18 Carrots for Rabbit” is one of his (the surreal title might have clued you in).

Although Mulligan’s playing is often described as “airy,” he solidifies his sound under the influence of Hodges’ driving style. The alto solo by Hodges starting at 0:35 establishes a high-energy voice that pulls long lines through the jagged tune. Mel Lewis’ brushwork on the snare is especially nice.


6. Track: “And Then Some”
Album: Blue Hodge
Label: Verve
Year: 1961

There’s a different flavor of driving energy on this track from Blue Hodge, an older, tighter, more Ellington-rooted style. What they used to call “jumpin’.” The record was the first of several that featured organist Wild Bill Davis.

In Hodges’ composition “And Then Some,” his sax acts as a grounding device below the flute of Les Spann (better known as a guitarist) and Davis’ vibrating organ chords. “And Then Some” opens side A, so you’ll find it easily on this full-album video:


7. Track: “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing”
Album: Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges
Label: Impulse!
Year: 1964

Time to slow down for another ballad and let Hodges pull the longing from deep down in his horn. “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing” is a little-known gem by Billy Strayhorn. Even when it was new, it didn’t get much attention, although the Vince Guaraldi Trio named a 1957 album after it and Ella Fitzerald made a beautiful recording of it with Ellington in 1965. Since you won’t find a more singing instrumental sound than Hodges’ alto, you can practically hear the lyrics.


    8: Track: Wings & Things
    Album: Wings & Things
    Label: Verve
    Year: 1965

    This is another collaboration with Wild Bill Davis, but this time Davis gets equal billing on the LP cover and equal playing power in the studio. Hodges and Lawrence Brown (trombone) do a call-and-response with Davis in this up-tempo swinging 12-bar blues by Hodge. Richard Davis’ walking bass gives the proceedings a solid bounce. Grant Green kills it with his long solo starting at 1:03, followed by a sly couple of verses from Hodges. This one stays in your head.

    Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/William P. Gottlieb/public domain.

    This article first appeared in Issue 85.
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