Those of us who write about jazz are a breed of our own. In most cases, our only reward is the satisfaction of seeing our ideas transcribed to the printed page. Inwardly we all cherish the thought that some small segment of jazz history is being recorded by our efforts. We are warmed by the knowledge that future jazz historians will carefully ponder our work; they will certainly envy us for having lived at a time when an art form was being moulded into a chunk of Americana that will live for ever.
Writing about jazz is a joyous endeavour. Usually our rhetoric is inspired by the happy sounds of the men who make the music we love. Occasionally, however, we are called upon to write about a fallen hero, and this is a task far more difficult than one can imagine. Somehow, the wound grows deeper as we gaze toward the blank page and try to fill it with kind words about a departed loved one. I recently promised myself that f would never again submit to the self-inflicted torment associated with writing a jazz obituary.
So, in keeping with that promise, it must be emphasized that this is not an obituary! An obituary is about someone who has died—and Johnny Hodges can never die! The beautiful music he created transcends the mundane situation of life and death. All of us who had the opportunity to witness a Hodges performance or listen to his records hold something in our hearts that will continue to live.
Except for a brief period when he attempted to launch his own orchestra, most of Johnny’s career was inexorably entwined within the wonderful world of Ellingtonia. Since 1928. the Hodges sound has been a foundation for the Duke’s reed section. While occasionally featured on clarinet and soprano sax, it was the alto saxophone on which he became world famous. With the possible exceptions of the great Benny Carter and, in later years, Charlie Parker, the alto saxophone was completely dominated by this giant of jazz. His smooth flowing tone added immeasurably to many of Ellington’s most famous recordings.
In an era when soul music is fashionable, it should be remembered that Johnny Hodges was probably the first jazz musician to expound the sound of ‘soul’. Listen to any of the great blues recorded under Johnny’s name with a small group of Duke’s sidemen back in the 30’s. You’ll hear the toots of the sound being featured by most of the contemporary artists currently riding the wave generated by Jeep’s Blues recorded thirty two years ago!
Since this is not an obituary, it will not be necessary to dwell upon the many honours that have been extended to Johnny Hodges. Let it merely be mentioned that any jazz poll during the last forty years certainly reflected the contribution he made to jazz.
While closely associated with Ellington throughout the years, he maintained a parallel career as recording artist under his own name and recently with such diverse stars as Earl Hines, Wild Bill Davis, and even Lawrence Welk. (The latter tried to lure Hodges from the Ellington fold shortly after they had recorded an album together!) My initial exposure to the Hodges sound was a 1937 Lionel Hampton record that was a fixture on the juke box at one of my high school haunts.
I met Johnny for the first time in 1952. He had recently left the Duke and was touring with his eight piece band that included Lawrence Brown and Emmett Berry. Their only booking in the Los Angeles area was a coloured dance in nearby Monrovia. The crowd was skimpy and Johnny confided that he would probably abandon the group and return to the security of the Ellington band.
Johnny Hodges’ music bore a strong New Orleans influence. I recall discussing Sidney Bechet with him during a memorable Ellington birthday party at Billy Strayhorn’s house several years ago. He expressed great admiration for the New Orleans musician with whom he had studied earlier. I would imagine that the years spent in juxtaposition to the great Barney Bigard in the Duke’s reed section also had a strong influence on Johnny Hodges.
Throughout the years, Johnny reaffirmed his genius and won the hearts of jazz fans throughout the world.
The recent New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival provided the last opportunity we had to hear the Hodges horn. As always, he was brilliant. His featured solo on the lovely Passion Flower could certainly be termed a highlight of the Festival.
Thinking back to that Saturday evening in the Municipal Auditorium, we must now ponder Johnny’s selection as an encore to Passion Flower. It could not have been a prophetic choice since it probably followed a well established sequence; however, we must accept his pronouncement: Things Ain’t What They Used To Be!
It is no small thing to wake up on a fine May morning with the thought that life is good, and then be kicked smartly in the teeth. But that’s the way it was.
I read it for myself at breakfast; forgot the sun, the birds and the breakfast, the deep sea swell, the profit and loss. It just didn’t seem possible. Jazzmen die, maybe more than most: it can be a dangerous occupation. Some jazzmen had to die: Bix had to die: Bird had to die; Billie Holiday had to die; even Lester. Some, like Clifford Brown, Chu Berry, Jimmie Lunceford died of our mechanised and technological age, hostages to a precarious human existence. But not Johnny Hodges. Johnny’s calm, unruffled, slightly aloof person seemed indestructable. There are people whose death causes deep sadness, wild grief even; but not surprise. There are others whose passing seems to shake the foundations; whose hold upon life appears so firm, so unostentatious, that their death is something which ought not to occur in a reasonable and tolerable world. Hodges was like that. So what can we say confronted by the appalling fact of his death? It is like some monstrous, totally unjust slap in the face. For he was no great age, and only a few months ago he was there in front of the band, his total mastery of his music apparently untouched and uncorrodcd by the envious hands of time. Sixty-three; yes. But I cannot think of that in terms of more than well matured years; not when a few days earlier I had written a piece for the birthday of Otto Klemperer (85) and a few days later listened to and then talked with Andres Segovia (77).
There are some articles one wants never to have to write. I never wanted to have to write this one. It still does not seem credible that I have to. For days afterwards when I read in the press remarks about ‘the late Johnny Hodges . . .’, or ‘Johnny Hodges, who died last week . . .’ my mind rebelled!
Forty-two years is a long time in anybody’s book: forty-two years is the time Johnny was with Duke. There was the break between 1951 and 1956; but that was more like a leave of absence than a desertion: one felt that the lines held: the link was stretched only, never snapped. Johnny's music during that time was full of Ellington echoes, often nostalgias; Duke’s music seemed always waiting for Johnny. And of course, back he came. He never again left. He appeared to challenge mortality; gave a new twist to permanency. I can’t think what Duke will do without him. Probably Duke can’t either.
Technically, his achievement was remarkable. He demonstrated conclusively that the saxophone was born to be played ‘hot’. A hybrid instrument, made of brass, with a conical bore, using a single or ‘beating’ reed, and fingered like woodwind, Adolphe Sax’s brainchild came into the world bandy legged and with many musical disadvantages. Played ‘straight’ it is uninteresting, because it is so weak in overtones and colourless in the fundamentals. Its real capabilities were not released until the great jazz players got at and with it. Others besides Hodges made that necessary demonstration - Hawkins, Bechet, Carney. But no one carried it further, elucidated it more comprehensively, than Johnny Hodges, the more so since the alto is the determining voice among the saxophones as the violin is among the strings.
There was always something aloof and detached about Johnny Hodges. Not indifferent, not cold: he was a friendly little man, with a particular turn of wry humour. He felt deeply but seldom wore his heart on his sleeve, did not make woolly emotional exhibitions; was not at all demonstrative, either as man or artist. Indeed, some when he appeared in England with the 1958 contingent (the first of course since 1933) accused him of wilful disinterest, almost censurable lack of involvement, on the surface. He replied that he felt a certain way and acted accordingly, that he was not willing to put on a show, and that in any case he did not see that a demonstrative musician was necessarily a better musician. It would be easy to say that the style was the man; and in many ways it was true. Yet in a certain sense it was not true; the playing of Johnny Hodges was full of excitement, joie de vivre (a phrase often used about him), a natural and spontaneous emotional commitment; but as a man he was not quite like that. He would enjoy a talk and a drink with you any time; he had a marked sense of fun and an almost boyish relish for a good joke; yet there was something always apart: you felt that some force of natural reserve stood between you and him.
Now he is gone. Never again shall we hear that marvellous rich sound, that thankful tone as one might call it, either in the Ellington band or away from it. The greatest sax section in jazz history has lost its right arm and the greatest band has lost its most important and most distinguished voice.
Clark Terry once said: ‘Even when he’s playing a harmony part in the section, you can feel him through the whole band.’ Terry also said: ‘Above all, he’s always been true to himself.’ Passing fashion meant nothing to Johnny Hodges; only a kind of subjective honesty not always found in those upon whom heavy pressures constantly bear, as they do and must bear upon all who play jazz and live the constant life of a working musician. The knowledge is inescapable: Things ain’t what they used to be. They never will be again. But one thing is for sure: they were once; for over forty years they were. While the pain is upon us, the blood still on the moon, we must never cease to give thanks for that.
Jazz Journal - July 1970