Johnny Hodges (1906-1970) is famous for having played lead alto saxophone in the orchestra of Duke Ellington for 38 years. He has an instantly identifiable, poignant sound, and was featured on many ballads written by Duke, such as "I Got It Bad And That Ain't Good", and "Isfahan". Along with Benny Carter, he is probably the most seminal and influential voice on alto saxophone from the early years of jazz.

Although he was apparently self-taught, he did study with the great Creole soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, and he can be heard on soprano on a number of early Ellington recordings. The influence of Bechet is quite clear in Hodges's broad vibrato, although his melodic approach is generally much smoother and less energised than Bechet's - no doubt a result of Hodges's calmer and less volatile nature.

On stage, Hodges's demeanour went beyond cool, to the almost icy, it seems. Once, when asked why he never played a wrong note, he simply replied: "Why should I?". There is also an anecdote of him being asked about his habit of gazing slowly around the room while playing - he replied that he liked to count the exit doors to the hall. Despite all this, there is nothing at all cold or unemotional in his sound - it is one of the most romantic and beautiful in any form of music. His tasteful use of bends and slides, and his lush warm vibrato, are notable and worthy of study by any saxophonist. Check out his theme statement on "Isfahan" (youtube link below).

Despite Hodges's exceedingly long tenure with Ellington's orchestra (and his voice was a signature for Duke's sound, both as lead alto and as a soloist), their relationship was not always easy. More than once he left, often taking other band members with him, and performed Ellington's compositions in his own groups (and on recordings such as "Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges"). But he always returned. The fact that he was taken back shows that Duke recognised how unique he was. Most of the "suites" that Duke composed later in his career featured a romantic ballad as a feature for Hodges, and after his death (from heart problems), Duke 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."

Recommended listening :
"Jeeps Blues (compilation)"
"Everybody Knows Johnny Hodges (Impulse)"
"Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges Play The Blues Back To Back"
"Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges : Side By Side"
... and virtually any Ellington recording you care to mention.

Further reading :
shirazsocialist blog with the Isfahan video
Any of the many Ellington bios.

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