Johnny Hodges

Few musicians can be identified by the sound of a single note—Johnny Hodges was one.

A master of both the soprano and alto saxophone, he dominated the jazz world for decades.

“ Duke Ellington, who led the orchestra in which Hodges played most often, said that Hodges’s “tone [was] so beautiful it … brought tears to the eyes” (Chapman, 164).

Cornelius “Johnny” Hodges was born on July 25, 1907, in his parents’ Cambridge apartment at 137 Putnam Avenue, the youngest of three and the only boy.

The family moved to Clarendon Avenue in 1920 and Boston in 1922. His father, John, worked as a waiter and porter and his mother, Katie, as a domestic. Katie was an accomplished pianist and taught everyone in the family to play. Johnny was an impatient student; he could compose on the keyboard but never read music well and had little formal musical training.

Hodges (“Jeep” or “Rabbit”) was 14 when he acquired his first saxophone; he taught himself to play and was soon performing at private parties and in jazz venues around Boston. The young man did not find much musical scope in the Greater Boston scene: the city never had a Harlem and unlike New York’s integrated musicians’ union, Boston’s remained segregated until 1969.

Hodges moved alone to New York City in 1924 at age 17 and joined Ellington four years later on May 18, 1928. During his almost forty years with the band, Hodges refined his smooth, velvety style on numbers such as “Passion Flower,” “Lush Life,” and “Prelude to a Kiss.” He performed blues and up-tempo pieces, including “Jeep’s Blues” and “Hodge-Podge.”

The composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn, another longtime Ellingtonian, wrote several pieces that featured Hodges, none more beautifully than “Blood Count.” Johnny Hodges died in NYC in 1970. Ellington said sadly, “(O)ur band will never sound the same” (164).