Many major musicians played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra during its half century of existence, but none, other than the leader himself, was more closely identified with the band than saxophonist Johnny Hodges (1906-1970). Hodges was consistently given the solo spotlight, and his robust, sweetly resonant lead alto work greatly helped give the orchestra’s reed section its distinctive timbre during his 38-year tenure. “He had a wailing sound, and he played with a moan,” bassist Milt Hinton observed. “It was sad but beautiful.”
Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and raised in Boston, Hodges got the nickname “Rabbit” due to his ability to outrun truant officers, according to his own story, though Ellington baritone saxophonist Harry Carney attributed it to his bandmate’s fondness for lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Before turning 20, Hodges landed a gig in New York City playing in an outfit led by his hero, the great New Orleans soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet. Hodges joined drummer Chick Webb’s band in 1927 and jumped to the Ellington camp the following year.
Hodges began making records under his own name in 1937 with small bands drawn from the Ellington ranks and had several hits, including “Jeep’s Blues” on which he soloed on soprano saxophone. At the urging of concert promoter and record producer Norman Granz, Hodges quit Ellington in 1951, taking trombonist Lawrence Brown and drummer Sonny Greer with him. The new Hodges group quickly scored two Top 10 r&b hits—“Castle Rock” and “A Pound of Blues,” both featuring tenor saxophonist Al Sears—but Hodges soon developed an aversion to the responsibilities of being bandleader. He returned to the Ellington orchestra in 1955 and was its star soloist for the remainder of his life.