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  • Writer's pictureJazz Attack

Jazz Greats: Johnny Hodges

John Cornelius "Johnny" Hodges was born July 25, 1907 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to John H. Hodges and Katie Swan Hodges. While known as a saxophone player, Hodges began as a self-taught pianist and drummer. His professional career began when he was a teen, playing piano at dances in private homes for $8 an evening. At the age of 14, his sister introduced him to Sidney Bechet, revered American saxophonist and clarinetist, who began giving Hodges private lessons. Hodges honed his skills and became well-known in Boston before moving to New York City in 1924.

In New York, Hodges began playing with many of the greats. He was in bands led by legends such as Lloyd Scott, Chick Webb, Bobby Sawyer, and Luckey Roberts. The band he is most closely associated with though, he joined in 1928: Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. Hodges was a pivotal part of Duke’s band, not only as an alto sax soloist but as a co-writer on several of Ellington’s records. He toured with Ellington’s band in Europe in the 1930s. In the late 30s and early 40s, he recorded many well-known songs with the group such as In a Sentimental Mood, Things Ain’t What They Used to Be and The Jeep Is Jumpin’  (Jeep was one of Hodge’s nicknames). In New York, Hodges also met his first wife Bertha Pettiford and had his son, John C. Hodges II. In 1944, Hodges was re-married to Edith Cue, a dancer in the Cotton Club chorus. They had a daughter, Lorna Lee.

In 1951, Hodges left Duke Ellington’s Orchestra to create his own small group: Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra. Many greats played in his band such as Lawrence Brown, Sonny Greer, and John Coltrane. One of the group’s most well-received records was Castle Rock, the title track was a hit song. In 1955, Hodges rejoined Ellington’s group but continued to record and perform under his own name as well. He recorded several joint albums with Ellington such as Duke Ellington And Johnny Hodges Play The Blues – Back To Back and Duke Ellington And Johnny Hodges Side by Side. He continued to work with greats such as Frank Sinatra, Wild Bill Davis, and Ben Webster. 

In 1970, Johnny Hodges performed at the Imperial Room in Toronto. Less than a week later, on May 11, 1970, he died of a heart attack while visiting the office of a dental surgeon. At Hodges’ funeral, Duke Ellington was quoted saying "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." Hodge’s melodies were distinct and integral to the sound he brought to Ellington’s band and his own groups. His technique and harmonic sense were unmatched and kept his solos sounding contemporary, no matter where or when he was playing.

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