John Cornelius 'Johnny' Hodges was born on the 25th July 1906 in Cambridge, Mass. He started his musical career playing drums and piano before taking up the saxophone at the age of 14, beginning on the soprano and later the alto. Originally self-taught he was given lessons by Sydney Bechet, whom he got to know through his sister. He followed Bechet into Willie 'The Lion' Smith's quartet at the Rhythm Club (around 1924), then played in the house band with Bechet at Bechet's Club Basha in Harlem at 2493 Seventh Ave at West 145th Street. Drummer Tommy Benford was also in the band (1925) . In an interview with Don DeMichael ( Downbeat 1962) he said, 'They used to have midnight shows at the Lafayette Theater every Friday. All the clubs used to put on their shows free. Fantastic. We put on our show, and that's how I got to be known, through him. We played I've Found A New Baby in duet form. So I was a big guy from then on, playing a duet with Bechet'
He continued to live in Boston and travelled to New York at weekends playing with such musicians as Bobby Sawyer (1925), Lloyd Scott (1926), then from late 1926 with the great Chick Webb at The Paddock Club and The Savoy Ballroom, etc. followed by a short stint with Luckey Roberts.
In May 1928 Johnny joined Duke Ellington's orchestra and he remained a mainstay of the group for the next 40 years. From his first recording in 1928 he revealed his authority and technical mastery of the saxophone, playing with a broad, sweeping tone and producing impressive, cascading runs. In the opinion of many people, he soon became Duke's most valuable soloist. He made hundreds of recordings with Duke and from 1937 led his own small studio group drawn from the orchestra which made many successful series of recordings for Victor and other labels. Titles included 'Jeep's Blues', 'Hodge Podge', 'The Jeep is Jumpin' all of which were co-written with Duke. Also in this period of great creativity he played in many other small groups with musicians such as Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, etc., producing classics of the period.
Johnny was one of the many stars of the Ellington band of the 40s producing solos of immense authority on songs such as 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be', 'Don't Get Around Much Any More', 'Passion Flower', etc. From the 40s he concentrated on the alto leaving the soprano alone completely and in this period he regularly won the popularity polls run by magazines such as Downbeat, Metronome, and Esquire.
In March 1951 Johnny left Duke to form his own small group taking with him Lawrence Brown and Sonny Greer and in their first recording session they produced a hit record of 'Castle Rock'. Johnny disbanded the group in the spring of 1955 and after a brief spell of TV work on the Ted Steele Show, rejoined Duke in August of that year where, apart from a few brief periods, he remained for the rest of his life. In the spring of 1958 he worked with Billy Strayhorn and in 1961 went to Europe with some of the other band members in a group called The Ellington Giants.
He continued to record prolifically with musicians such as Wild Bill Davis, Earl Hines, and even one session with Lawrence Welk. Duke and Billy Strayhorn continued to write compositions and arrangements featuring Johnny's unique sound and talents leaving a wonderful legacy of recorded music for the enjoyment of successive generations of enthusiasts. He won the admiration of many saxophonists such as Ben Webster and even John Coltrane who played in one of the small groups in 1953-4 said that Johnny was always one of his favourite players.
In his later years Johnny used fewer and fewer notes, remaining close to the melody in ballads and improvising simple but telling riffs on the faster numbers, many of which were based on the blues . The power of his playing came from his sound and his soul, generating immense swing and building the dramatic tension from chorus to chorus. The end came suddenly when he died of a heart attack in his dentist's office in New York City on the 11th May 1970.
Cue Hodges, Johnny's wife, said about her husband, 'Writers talk about about Johnny like he was another instrument that Ellington played. But he was his own man all the way-with or without Duke. When he made music, he made the music he wanted to, the way he wanted to'
For those of us fortunate enough to have seen him the memory will always remain of a calm, remote, almost aloof figure, sitting in the middle of the saxophone section of Duke's orchestra, rising to his feet when called to solo by Duke, when that beautiful and unique sound would fill the club or auditorium, thrilling us all.
Johnny Hodges - the greatest of all the alto saxophone players.
Sources: Who's Who Of Jazz - Storyville To Swing Street John Chilton - Chilton Book Company
The New Grove Dictionary Of Jazz - McMillan Books