Johnny Hodges: born July 25, 1907 in Cambridge, MA; died May 11, 1970 in New York City
- When he was a baby, his family moved to Hammond Street in Boston, where he was surrounded by musical neighbors, including Harry Carney, Charlie Holmes and Howard Johnson.
- By the time he was a teen, Hodges had graduated from playing the kitchen pots and pans and the parlor piano to the soprano saxophone, upon which he was mentored by Sidney Bechet.
- After honing his saxophone skills locally, he next worked with the Chick Webb Orchestra in New York in 1927, and then joined Duke Ellington in 1928. Hodges remained with Duke until his death, except for a 1951-55 sabbatical to lead his own group and some periodic much shorter breaks.
- Hodges was voted best alto saxophonist by the readers of Down Beat magazine ten times, and by the readers of Metronome magazine twice. He also won the Down Beat critics poll seven times.
- Hodges insisted that his nickname,“Rabbit,” derived from his ability to flee the truant officer, but Carney said it came from Hodges’ partiality to lettuce and tomato sandwiches.
Johnny Hodges (Photo by Jack Bradley)
Stu Vandermark on Johnny Hodges
If ever there was such a thing as a natural-born improviser, Johnny Hodges was it.
By age 13, Hodges “was blowing that saxophone then as well as he played it all down through the years” (Charlie Holmes) and “playing more jazz than he did with Duke” (Benny Waters). Before he learned to read music, teenager Hodges was an influence on local and visiting jazz musicians who would stop by the exclusive Black and White Club to see the alto saxophonist featured with Walter Johnson’s entertainment band.
That is where Duke Ellington first saw “Rabbit” in action.
Before 1925 Hodges became part of the first large group of jazz musicians to participate in the still active “Boston-New York Pipeline,” commuting to New York to learn via cutting contests and to impress bandleaders in both towns. In 1996, when jazz giant Benny Carter was asked whether he had learned anything from Hodges, he said, “Not to play ‘Warm Valley’ and other things that he played upon request—because nobody can make them sound the way he did.”