Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges
By Con Chapman
It’s astonishing that this 2019 publication is the first complete biography of one of the greatest alto saxophonists, stylists, and influential musicians in jazz history. However, as is often said, better late than never. This concise and rather thorough examination of Johnny Hodges’ life and career is a must read for all woodwind players and lovers of Ellington’s music. One gets a real perspective of how this kid from Cambridge, Mass. with barely a high school education became one of the most sophisticated musicians and recognizable sounds in jazz. It follows his growth from a Sidney Bechet-influenced player to a virtuoso alto saxophonist to the unique voice who became the major soloist in one of the greatest musical ensembles in history. Perhaps because Hodges remained true to his rhythmic, harmonic and melodic concepts throughout his career and was not viewed as a progressive (modern) player, he is often overlooked these days.
However, every major alto saxophonist that I have met (Phil Woods, Charles McPherson, Dick Oatts, Ted Nash, Gary Foster, George Young, etc.) have indicated nothing but the greatest admiration for Hodges. His influence on commercial work was predominant in creating the Hollywood saxophone sound of the 1950s/60s when artists such as Les Robinson, Ronnie Lang, Bud Shank, etc. were busy recording alto solos in film scores. Even the great Ben Webster admitted that he loved Hodges’ playing so much that he took an “alto approach to the tenor.” Hodges also played with a Who’s Who of artist outside the Ellington band during his career including Billie Holiday, Lionel Hampton, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and with Wild Bill Davis in one of the first organ/sax combos. He led his own orchestra and septet during the few years he was away from Ellington (during which time a young tenor player named John Coltrane played with Hodges) and even recorded with Lawrence Welk! None the less, Hodges is remembered today for the nearly 40 years he played with the Ellington Orchestra. This Oxford University published book is available through Amazon and multiple book stores for $27 in hardcover, $15 via Kindle.
As a bonus, I have included the audio track and my transcription of Hodges’ solo on “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)” from the 1961 album Johnny Hodges with Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra below.