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In the meticulously researched Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges (Oxford University Press), author Con Chapman paints a fascinating portrait of one of Duke Ellington’s most valued sideman. A complex individual, the surly saxophonist crafted some of the most tender, romantic solos to ever issue from the Ellington bandstand. And while he played with Ellington for more than 40 years, off and on, their relationship was fraught with personal differences as well as grievances over money and song credits.
Yet Ellington’s esteem for Hodges was unquestionable. “Johnny was, with one exception that I found, always the highest paid soloist,” says Chapman, who pored over the band’s books, making use of skills he honed as a longtime Boston-based attorney. Hodges took the lion’s share of solos, his sensuous alto becoming a hallmark of the band. “[Critic] Dan Morgenstern has this great quote about how when [Hodges] started playing, there’d be this collective sigh from the women in the audience,” Chapman says, “and Duke would sort of use that as part of the music.”
Born in Cambridge in 1907, Hodges gravitated to the burlesque houses and nightclubs of Boston as a teenage prodigy. He was still in short pants when, after hearing him play in Boston, Ellington made several attempts to hire him. Abashed by his lack of sight-reading skills, Hodges resisted. But Ellington persisted and Hodges took his place among Duke’s men in 1928. He was affectionately known as “Rabbit,” a nickname that, according to Hodges, was derived from his habit of running from truant officers, but which likely caught on because he resembled the animal. Another nickname, “Jeep,” was inspired by a character from the Popeye comic strip. Hodges’ sound was
ideally suited to Billy Strayhorn’s compositions, which brought Ellington’s music — and the saxophonist's playing — to sophisticated heights.
Hodges left the band in 1950, when Ellington cut his pay, due to changing economic fortunes. He led his own small combos, but found it tough sledding and returned to the fold in 1955. “He was kind of coming back with his tail between his legs,” Chapman says. “Supposedly, his wife made the call to Duke. She called him up and said, ‘Do you need an alto player?’ And Duke said, ‘Of course I do.’”
Hodges died in 1970, three years before Ellington. —Bob Weinberg