A saxophonist of considerable authority when playing with a band, he possessed technical mastery of his instrument an individualistic style and use of vibrato that made him admired by many. His sax playing had a beautiful tone and he was able to play long flowing runs like few others. His playing of the blues was particularly sensuous and his way with a ballad made him the quintessential Ellington sideman and an in demand player to accompany others.
“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.” – Duke Ellington’s eulogy for Johnny.
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts in July 1907 John Keith Hodges first learned to play both piano and drums before playing the soprano and it was only later that he became a specialist with the alto saxophone. He went to New York while still in his teens where he played with a few bands; having been inspired by Sidney Bechet he also took guidance from the jazz pioneer.
Johnny joined Duke Ellington’s Orchestra in 1928, playing on his first record in March and from the very first he became pivitol to the Ellington sound as well as co-writing some of Duke’s recordings. He toured Europe with Ellington in both 1933 and 1939, and three years later he played on the classic, ‘Things Ain’t What They Used To Be’ helping to make it so distinctive as well as a big hit record.
After playing on so many wonderful Ellington records Hodges left in 1951 to work within a small group environment, something he had already done within the Ellington organization. His first session for Norgran was in January along with two other Ellingtonians, trombonist Lawrence Brown and Duke’s long serving drummer, Sonny Greer. The album was called Castle Rock, the title track was a hit single and the album was later reissued on Verve. A month later the same players recorded an album entitled, Memories of Ellington that was reissued as In A Mellow Tone by Verve.
Over the next decade or so Johnny recorded a lot of albums for both Norgran and Verve. Among the highlights were Ellingtonia ’56, Johnny Hodges with Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra and The Big Sound. He also worked with Ellington himself and recorded Duke Ellington And Johnny Hodges Play The Blues – Back To Back and Duke Ellington And Johnny Hodges Side by Side that show off the wonderful musicianship of the long time colleagues.
In the early 1960s he rejoined Ellington’s band and was in the studio when Duke and Sinatra recorded the album, Francis A. And Edward K in December 1967. Among the songs they recorded was the beautiful ‘Indian Summer’ with a sumptuous Billy May arrangement. It is among the best songs Sinatra recorded for Reprise and Johnny Hodges sax solo certainly adds to the overall effect. So enthralled was Sinatra during its recording that when it ends he’s half a second late in coming in to sing.
Hodges last appearance was at the Imperial Room in Toronto, less than a week before his death. He suffered a heart attack during a visit to his dental surgeon in May 1970. Hodges performance on Sinatra’s record was a fitting elegy to a great saxophonist.