Johnny Hodges on Record - Burnett James

Now that a little time has passed since the sudden death of Johnny Hodges momentarily deprived us of all sense and credulity, it is possible as well as necessary to stand back and try for the detached (more or less) objective assessment of what he did and how he evolved as man and artist over the long years of his involvement in the jazz scene. And that of course means analysis of the recordings on which he appeared and that in its turn means what he did as key member and irreplaceable cornerstone of the Duke Ellington orchestra. Primarily, that is, for Hodges did appear from time to time on records not specifically and inescapable Ellingtonian; but in the main it is Duke or Duke affiliated. Is, must be, and forever will be.

The facts are simple: he joined Duke in 1928 and he worked there until he died forty- two years later. Except for the period 1951-56 when he was off leading his own group. But that, we must say again, was more leave of absence than total apostacy, for the music he made was haunted by Duke, and it was always odds on that he would be back: he had to be; the links were too strong, the ghost too insistent. That was in the book, and what is written in the book cannot be avoided or evaded, ultimately. 'Memories of Ellington'; it signified.

Whenever a great jazzman dies, the big question comes up again. Hemingway said that the bullfight cannot be considered a major art because it finished with whoever makes it, ‘while a major art cannot even be judged until the unimportant physical rottenness of whoever made it is well buried.' Well, the ‘unimportant physical rottenness' of Johnny Hodges is buried now1; so where are we?

Maybe Hemingway is a bit off the mark, one way. Can we not judge an art before its maker is dead? A hard saying, and not unassailable truth. Duke himself is not dead and we can judge his art well enough. Stravinsky is not dead, and we do not need to wait upon a verdict of posterity. But with jazz it is different: since jazz is mostly to be judged upon performance, it is a matter of playing first and foremost, rather than something set down upon paper for succeeding generations to evaluate, it seems it must come under the Hemingway sentence. What of permanence is left now of Miley, Bechet, Bix. Billie Holiday, Bird, all the rest; and now Hodges? It is an awkward question, perhaps the fundamental one. 1 cannot go further into it now, only set it down. Perhaps the best we can say is that we have records, and through records something at least may be preserved and perpetuated. Let us leave it there and concentrate on what we have.

As soon as Hodges joined Duke, he became a top featured soloist, along with Miley, Tricky Sam, Bigard, and Carney. His arrival changed the lace of the band and the sound of the reeds. The strength of his tone and the force of his playing put new power into the section as well as adding a solo voice of unique eloquence. He came to Duke from Chick Webb after youthful ears had been filled with the sound and example of Sidney Bechet. But what he had learnt from Sidney was taken into the evolving texture of his own creative personality. There was never a question of imitating Bechet, or anyone else. He came with a style and approach entirely his own: sprang as it were fully fledged from the nest and seedbed. From the outset he played the alto saxophone as no one had played it before, or even knew it could be played; and he continued to play it like that until he died more than forty years later. That is the straight fact: that is where we start from.

At once, a problem. To survey Hodges on record would be virtually to take in all Duke's recordings except for the period 1951-56 and then some. On every relevant Duke LP compilation there is magnificent Hodges. One must to make the tally complete include everything; vet that is merely to introduce a confusion and defeat the object. Then there are all the records Johnny made under his own name while he worked with Duke—and that is another large pile. To select inevitably means leaving out many essentials: to concentrate only on what is currently in the catalogues begs the question. Hodges was one of the most consistent of all jazzmen who made records. Oh yes, he made some duff ones: at least not quite up to up to his own matchless standards. But not many. And of those few7 forgettable records he did make, or was featured on, most are, in the context of the LP collections, impossible to separate from side by side masterpieces. So what to do?

Obviously, the best way is to follow Johnny's own development as an artist and, as the examiners say, ‘give examples (But if you expect me to approach the art of Johnny Hodges like an examiner setting papers you are in for a big surprise too.) Let us then begin at the beginning, follow7 it out to the end, and see how it goes.

It goes like this: the development of Johnny Hodges followed in many respects the development of Duke himself. No one will quarrel with that, for Johnny was an integral part of Duke's evolution, since Duke has always written his music for the men who are to play it, not as some abstract creation, a pattern of sound to be 'realised' by any performer who has a mind to it. Duke uses all of himself all the time, and in so doing makes his men use all of themselves also. That is why few of the great Ellingtonians have really made it away from the band, and why when they have gone off on their own they play either Ellington-haunted music or generally anonymous music. That too is why Johnny always had to go back.

Johnny's first Ellington recordings were Tishomingo Blues and Yellow Dog Blues, now in the Ace of Hearts 'Cotton Club Days, Vol. 3’ (AH166), Not the greatest Duke endiscments perhaps, but notable for that distinguished debut alto on the first, soprano on the second. Apart from this, it is not one of the essential LPs in the Duke or the Hodges context (always given that at bottom all Duke LPs are essential). Top for early Hodges-Duke are RCA’s ‘Flaming Youth' (RD8089), and Part 1 of CBS's ‘The Ellington Era, Vol. 1’ (BPG62178). Both these, and some others, including the two earlier Ace of Hearts ‘Cotton Club Days' LPs, are particularly valuable in containing also pre-Hodges Ellington material, showing at once and no mistake the impact of the young genius of the alto on the Ducal aggregation and creative force. Here, in the first, 1928-30, period is the youthful Hodges, full of rippling energy, his tone hot as no altoist had made it before, the swing potent, infectious .irresistible. The playing is not so subtle, multi-coloured, easeful in deployment, as it was later to become: it is straightforward, direct, unambiguous, full of what Yeats called 'passionate intensity’. His solo on the immortal Hot And Bothered (CBS) is a supreme example of technical and expressive control at a fast tempo: some of the others notably Miley, fluff under the pressure of excitement; but not Johnny. Already he is marked as jazz's great unflappable. On Blues With A Feeling from the same set, Johnny plays soprano in a way which makes it clear that for him as for all true jazzmen, the blues are underneath first, last, and everywhere in between. No less than for Miley, no less than for Tricky—and both Miley and Tricky make great music here.

(Further confusion enters now7, for these two tracks as well as others are duplicated on two EMI issues on the Parlophone label—'Jungle Jamboree’ (PMC1154) and 'Rockin’ in Rhythm’ (PMC 1184), both fundamentally 'essential', all ways, but of questioned parentage: the old problem of who owns what in the jazz archives.)

RCA’s 'Flaming Youth’ has delectable Hodges from several angles. The first Mooche; the title tune; several characteristic choruses. But of particular interest is I Must Have That Man, not a Duke tune at all, but a current pop song (a good one) where after an inimitable Miley opening chorus and some of Duke’s piano, Hodges takes it near enough straight and shows all that sensitivity to lyric melody that was to be a hallmark throughout his life. Though here too the approach was to be modified, subtlised, the basic ingredient was established once for all, especially in the use of tonal emphasis and gradation to bring a tune to life. Those who complain (and there are people who will complain of anything, give them a hole to crawl through) that Johnny developed a sweet, sugary, sentimental vein from the 1940s onwards, forget that it was there all the time, was drawn out of the essence of the style—though it was only sugary and sentimental to those who had no ears to hear the gentle irony, the hard centre in the sweet to catch the unwary and unsuspecting tooth.

Things do not come out pat however much we may want them to: and I.P collections have a habit of hopping about to include matter covering several years and periods within one sleeve. The last years of the 1920s and the first two of the 1930s found Duke and his men working out their collective and individual geniuses at the Cotton Club; settling down to reach their first peak of maturity. Here RCA Camden’s Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club’ is a must (CDN119). Cotton Club Stomp, Stevedore Stomp, Ring dem Bells, all vintage Duke; plus the small group masterpiece Saratoga Swing. Hodges on top all the time. Failing that 'The Duke Steps Out’ (RCA RD7731) is nearly a substitute-title tune, another take of Ring Dem Bells, Old Man Blues, Diga Diga Doo, plus some earlier Miley dominated material, Hodges prominent in all he appeared on. But neither includes the period’s main masterpiece Echoes Of The Jungle.

1932 brought Otto Hardwick back into the sax section, making four, and Lawrence Brown to make the trombones a memorable trio. Of course, they said, this is the end of Duke: what is the slippery sophisticated Lawrence Brown doing in this kicking swinging band? No-ball. Brown added what Duke wanted: Duke was soon using him as another major voice. Duke did not have brain fag. Though the thirties Duke was expanding as a composer without losing the true pulse of the jazz business; in fact strengthening and extending it. Textures became more elaborate, more subtle, more highly organised; moods more various and complex. Hodges played his part, involved along with Duke; was the reeds' most individual voice still, but now within an enlarging framework. The ‘Swing’ era tame. Duke did not much care for it ( Jazz is music; swing is business'); but went on to show most others how it should be done, in his way, in his own way. He was working towards another creative peak.

It came in the early 1940s. Odd though, that Johnny Hodges did not seem to be quite so prominently featured: Ko-Ko, Jack The Bear. Harlem Airshaft, several other great tracks have little or no solo Hodges. Tricky, Cootie, Rex Stewart, Barney Bigard were all supreme; and for the first time Duke was using a regular tenor sax (Ben Webster). But Johnny was there all right: when he soloed he was great as ever, and in the section he was as always a cornerstone. his marvellous tone and sense of elegant yet vital phrasing informing all the time. And by now Billy Strayhorn had joined and had begun to write beautiful and sensually luxuriant pieces for Johnny. But perhaps it was in the small group records of the period that Johnny made his best and most individual music. He had matured by now, the deeper reaches of his talent come into new and subtler blending with the fiery force of his earlier self. Those who say that Johnny never changed but went on playing the same way for forty years are simply impossible: must have furred up ears. It was not a blatant change; no suggestion of selfconsciously turning himself inside out just to sound modern and ‘with it’. Johnny never did that; never needed to. But be came from the inside, came to man’s estate, as it might be; felt the seasons in him ripen the vintage of his unique art and artistry.

RCA have given us 'Things Ain't What They Used To Be (half Hodges small groups, half Rex Stewart ditto—RD7829). and CBS have 'Hodge Podge’ (52587), also by the small groups, and both imperishable, full of essential Rabbit. But the later 1940s were not good years for the bands. Even Duke felt the cold air. Plenty of records and plenty of good music; but little to match the greatness of 1940-42. preserved on 'At His Very Best’ (RCA RD27133) and 'In A Mellotone’ (RD27134). The war had its effects; the band was unstable: Cootie had left; Bigard followed; Blanton was dead: Rex left; Tricky died in 1946; Webster went. Johnny remained, apparently immovable, like Harry Carney. The two volumes of 'The Indispensible Duke Ellington’ have gone: but the period lives on in ‘Pretty Woman' (RCA7942) and 'Johnny Come Lately (RD7888). Johnny is featured well but not remarkably: some superb things like Esquire Swank, Memphis Blues, others; all artistry and authority. Yet it still wasn't a great period, for anyone.

But he was not immovable. 1951, he. Sonny Greer, Lawrence Brown, took off to form a new band under Johnny’s leadership. The world was shocked: so was Duke. But Duke recovered; in time, Johnny had a good little band, made some nice music, though it is not well documented on records. An old Columbia EP, Meet Mr. Rabbit’ (SEB10105) says it. Makes von think he never did leave Duke: just went for a long walk.

1956 and he was back again. From then until the end he was the inextinguishable star of the hand. And of a long series of records made under his own name, mostly with all or part of the Ellington band, but some with others. Some of the best from the late 1950s and early 1960s have gone. But they should be sought out and acquired, by violence or persuasion, or both. 'Johnny Hodges and the Ellington All- Stars' (1957) (Columbia 33CX10098): 'The Big Sound’ (1959) (Columbia 33CX10136); ‘Cue For Saxophone’ (1959) (Felsted SJA2008): ‘Johnny Hodges-Billy Strayhorn and The Orchestra' (1961) (Verve SVLP9009). Also ‘Booty’ (1960) (Columbia ‘Lansdowne’ 33SX1342), with trombonist Booty Wood.

Much of the band material of this era has got submerged in the contractual changes being issued here by Philips when they had the rights to CBS and not preserved when the changes were made. But ‘Such Sweet Thunder’ remains (Realm RMS52421). The two-disc set of Ella Fitzgerald and the Duke Ellington Song Book was not spell-binding all through: but the fourth side had D & E Blues with a superb solo from Johnny. That came from Verve. One Philips original to be looked for is 'Blues In Orbit' for it has mighty Rabbit. Best of all, the Ellington-Hodges 'Back To Back’ and Side By Side’ are now out again (Verve VSP11/12): some of Rabbit’s greatest late work, though a decade old now. So also the Hodges-Earl Hines 'Hodges and Hines/Swing’s Our Thing’ (Verve VLP/SVLP9219). Great stuff.

Later Duke with Johnny comes on ‘Afro Bossa’ (Reprise 6069), 'The Popular Duke Ellington' (RCA SF7835), ‘Far East Suite’ (RCA RD/SF7894). The little master is here as he always was and as we saw and heard him during the visits of the last years. No need to say more. 

Out a bit sideways, so to say, came a long series of Hodges recordings with organist Wild Bill Davis. Not everyone’s taste (what is?). Some said Johnny late in his life tended to coast a bit, did not always put the pressure on himself, could be bland, unconcerned, offhand almost. Could be, I will not argue. If he did just that, it is often the mark of the master. The master can coast without hurt to himself, or anyone else: only the second rate, those who are not sure of themselves, are nervous of letting something down, must always be hunting a masterpiece, always in the race for ‘originality’; think that if they say something they have said before, the sky as well as the roof will fall in. No so Johnny Hodges: no need for a perpetual hue and cry; blood on every moon. Maybe the RCA one with Wild Bill was best: will stand, any way, though others have charm and felicities a-plenty: many are treasured more than ever now. Only one or two abide the definitive question—‘Con-Soul and Sax’ (SF7744). Of non- Davis sets ‘Inspired Abandon’ with Lawrence Brown is good (HMV CLP1913), and ‘Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges’ is better (HMV CLP 1805)—these two from ABC-Paramount originals.

The ease and relaxation, the absolute mastery, the unrivalled poise and assurance of Johnny Hodges during the last decade and a half of his life was fortunately deployed with regularity in the recording studios. ‘The Duke With Coleman Hawkins’ has Johnny playing alongside Hawk and responding with spirit (World Record Club T489); and he had a delectable meeting with Gerry Mulligan in which his own elegance and lyric invention confronted the gruff energies of Gerry with much point in the Verve series, first put out here on (HMV CSD1372). And of course there is the 1952 meeting of Hodges, Charlie Parker, and Benny Carter in Funky Blues, once on (Columbia 33CX1008). Much more too.

Back to the Ellington band. We seem to have overlooked ‘Historically Speaking’ and ‘Ellington Presents’, both around in one form or other, though both have been messed about in the catalogue shufflings.Johnny had fun along with the rest on the Tchaikovsky Nutcracker recreation; but that is not around any more. So we come to the end: ‘And His Mother Called Him Bill’ (RCA SF7964) and the final ‘70th Birthday Concert’ (United Artists UAD6001— 2 discs), Johnny’s swansong. Hard to believe that within a few months he was dead: no sign of it here; no hint of time’s erosion. He came, he played, he went. That is all.

Well, we have after all taken in much, if not everything. It is inevitable, at the end. He left too little we can forget or by-pass. Too little, that is, to make a summary selection, dismissing that, turning the back on the other. Everybody knows Johnny Hodges. At least everybody goddamn well ought to know Johnny Hodges! And because of records, everybody can always know Johnny Hodges. It is fit and fitting. Such men are rare. A minor art, because it has finished with him who made it? Perhaps, perhaps not. Ask the ghost of Hemingway; but do not ask me.

Recommended records:

Because one has to be practical as well as truthful, we must distil though it goes against all the grain. So: it is ultimately all or nothing; yet since all may be self- defeating, I make this choice, enforced short list.

Flaming Youth                                                                       RCA RD 8089

The Ellington Era, Vol. 1                                                       CBS BPG 62178

Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club Camden                       CDN 19

Things Ain’t What They Used To Be                                   RCA RD 7829

Hodge Podge                                                                        CBS Realm 52587

Cue For Saxophone Felsted                                                SJA 2008

Johnny Hodges—Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra       Verve SVLP 9009

Back To Back/Side By Side Verve                                      VSP 11/12

Hodges and Hines/Swing's Our Thing Verve                     SVLP 9219

The Popular Duke Ellington                                                RCA SF 7894

Con Soul And Sax                                                                RCA SF 7744

Jazz Journal - December 1970

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