“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
Johnny Hodges had the sweetest saxophone tone of anyone – his was beautiful jazz. He also possessed technical mastery of his instrument, an individualistic style and the use of vibrato that made him admired by many. His playing of the blues was particularly sensuous and his way with a ballad made him the quintessential Duke Ellington sideman and an in demand player to accompany others.
After learning to play both piano and drums he first played soprano sax before becoming 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 appeared with Elington at The Cotton Club, toured Europe with him 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 Granz’s Norgran label 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 entitles, ‘Memories of Ellington’ that was later 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 Frank 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 at 60 years old still had it.
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.