Although I don’t think of myself as a serious music critic, during the first few years of this blog I did review over two hundred new albums. During that period I learned that what I liked was not always in tune with the cutting-edge crowd, especially when it came to jazz. While many modern critics seem to search out the newest — and sometimes strangest — sounds around, I’ve always loved the melodic and purely gorgeous tones of guys like Johnny Hodges, the alto sax legend who helped make Duke Ellington’s orchestra one of the best around.
This isn’t Hodges’ first appearance here — he was mentioned in an earlier piece about Lawrence Welk, of all people — but his is a story that needs expanding. Always musically inclined while growing up in the Boston area, he began as a drummer and pianist but switched to sax while still in his teens. In his early years he worked with icons like Sidney Bechet, but his key career move was becoming part of Ellington’s band during its Cotton Club years.
Hodges soon became a solo star and would spend over two decades with Ellington, during which he’d make many memorable appearances. One of those was when selected members of the orchestra joined Benny Goodman for his famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. (Benny — no slouch as an instrumentalist himself — would say of Hodges, ‘by far the greatest man on alto sax that I ever heard.’)
In the 1950s Hodges spent a few years leading his own groups, but with mixed results. He eventually rejoined Ellington, where he was welcomed with open arms and was again a featured star. Although he would continue to occasionally work with other musicians, especially in the recording studio, he would be a vital part of the Duke’s group until his death in 1970.