John Cornelius "Johnny" Hodges (25 July 1906 in Cambridge, Massachusetts – 11 May 1970) was an American alto saxophonist and lead player of Duke Ellington's saxophone section. He spent 38 years with Ellington, leaving to lead his own band from 1951 to 1955, returning to the fold shortly before Ellington's triumphant return to prominence via the orchestra's performance at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Hodges started playing with Lloyd Scott, Sidney Bechet, Lucky Roberts and Chick Webb. When Ellington wanted to expand his band in 1928, Ellington's clarinet player Barney Bigard recommended Hodges, who was featured on both alto and soprano sax. His playing became the identifying voice of the Ellington orchestra.
Read an interview with Johnny Hodges and bandmate Harry Carney.
Hodges was mostly self-taught, although he did take lessons on soprano sax with Bechet. Johnny Hodges was one of the prominent Ellington Band members who featured in Benny Goodman's legendary 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. Benny Goodman claimed Hodges was "the greatest man on alto sax I ever heard." Charlie Parker called him "the Lily Pons of his instrument."
Ellington's practice of writing tunes specifically for members of his orchestra resulted in the Hodges specialties, "Confab with Rab", "Jeep's Blues", and "Hodge Podge". Other songs recorded by the Ellington Orchestra which prominently feature Hodges' smooth alto-saxophone are "Magenta Haze", "Prelude to a Kiss", "Haupe" (from Anatomy of a Murder), "The Star-Crossed Lovers" from Ellington's Such Sweet Thunder suite, "I Got It Bad (And That Ain't Good)", "Blood Count" and "Passion Flower".
Generations of saxophonists turn to 1963 recording The Great Paris Concert, in which Hodges' lyrical poise is captured well, particularly on "On the Sunny Side of the Street".
He had a pure tone and economy of melody on both the blues and ballads that won him admiration from musicians of all eras and styles, from Ben Webster to John Coltrane, both of whom played with him when he had his own orchestra in the 1950s, to Lawrence Welk, who featured him in an album of standards. His highly individualistic playing style, which featured the use of a wide vibrato and much sliding between slurred notes, was frequently imitated. He earned the nicknames Rabbit (for his enjoyment of lettuce sandwiches) and Jeep (for his apparent speed as a runner).
Hodges led the Ellington saxophone section. A small highly precise man, his last performances were at the Imperial Room in Toronto, less than a week before his death from a sudden heart attack. His last recordings are featured on The New Orleans Suite, incomplete on his death.
In Ellington's eulogy of Hodges he said: "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."