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Music / Johnny Hodges

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Cornelius "Johnny" Hodges (July 25, 1907 – May 11, 1970) was an American saxophonist best known for two things: his long tenure in the orchestra of Duke Ellington, and pretty much being the embodiment of the Sexophone. Although his influence on jazz, and the saxophone in particular, was not as groundbreaking or far-reaching as his contemporary, Charlie Parker, Hodges was nonetheless deeply respected for his virtuosity, melodic improvisational ability, and luscious tone.

Hodges was born in Massachusetts, and grew up with future fellow Ellington alum Harry Carney (Ellington's long-time baritone saxophonist). His introduction to music came on the piano, which he largely taught himself. He picked up the soprano saxophone in his teens, at which time he picked up the nickname "Rabbit." The young Hodges was greatly influenced by the famed (and temperamental) early saxophonist Sidney Bechet.


By 1928, Johnny Hodges had joined the Duke Ellington orchestra, where he would make his name. Hodges would serve as Ellington's lead alto player for most of his subsequent career, along with stints leading his own big bands and as a solo artist. He was greatly respected by legendary saxophonists Ben Webster and John Coltrane, while Charlie Parker dubbed him the "Lily Pons of his instrument."

Following his death by heart attack in 1970, Ellington eulogized his longtime friend and collaborator, "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."



  • Ace Custom:
    • Hodges was given a customized saxophone by Vito late in his career, featuring extensive engraving, precious metals, and even had its octave key fashioned into a snake's head with diamond eyes.
    • His mouthpieces were frequently worked and refaced by Claude Humber. Among the modifications including widening the table (where the reed is placed) so it would accept a tenor saxophone reed.
  • Crossover: Hodges, in part owing to his long career, played with quite an eclectic collection of musicians, from swing-era musicians, (including other Ellington Orchestra alumni on side projects away from the full orchestra) beboppers like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, "Cool Jazz" pioneer Gerry Mulligan, eccentric John Coltrane, and even delved into 60s rock. Such was his virtuosity that Hodges could seamlessly keep up with him all. Hearing him Bop along with Gillespie is truly a thing of beauty.
  • Delinquents: One supposed origin of his nickname "Rabbit" is because of his ability to outrun truant officers.
  • Epic Rocking: The "Charlie Parker Jam Sessions" album not only features four songs all over ten minutes, ("Jam Blues" is just under 15 minutes, "What Is This Thing Called Love" is over 15 minutes, and the "Ballad Medley" is over 17 minutes long!) but features an astonishing collection of talent: fellow saxophonists Charlie Parker, (it's the only known recording featuring both Bird and Jeep) Benny Carter, Ben Webster, and Flip Phillips, pianist Oscar Peterson, and drummer Ray Brown.
  • Iconic Item: While Hodges played on a variety of instruments and mouthpieces over his lengthy career, he's best known for playing Beuscher saxophones (particularly the "Big B" Aristocrat and Beuscher 400 altos, and early in his career he played a Buescher True Tone sorpano) and Brilhart mouthpieces.
  • The Red Baron: Known as both Rabbit and Jeep. The former is variously attributed to his lack of expression while playing, his ability as a sprinter, (particularly his ability to out-run truant officers) or his habit of nibbling on lettuce and tomato sandwiches as a child.
  • Sexophone: If he's not the Ur-Example, he's at the very least in the running for Trope Codifier. Hodges was noted for his lush, sensuous sound, particularly for his work on ballads with the Ellington orchestra.


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