Friday, August 4, 2023

RABBIT"S BLUES: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges - Con Chapman

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“ There is nothing in jazz more beautiful than the sound of a group led by Johnny Hodges “ - 

- Leonard Feather, liner notes for Verve LP ‘Not So Dukish’.

“Hodges, nicknamed Rabbit, was the most beloved performer in the band after Ellington and shared with Benny Carter the mantle of leading alto saxophonist in the prebop era. A devout romantic with a sound that cuts like a knife and yet spreads like butter, Hodges was a stunningly lyrical player who required few notes to make a powerful and lasting impression in any musical situation. He was detached in manner and invariably looked bored on the bandstand, but as soon as he lodged his mouthpiece in the corner of his mouth, he produced a sexy, fluorescent sound that tinged the orchestra and billowed into every corner of the room. Charlie Parker admiringly dubbed him, "Johnny Lily Pons Hodges," and people otherwise indifferent to jazz were attracted to his songful, epigrammatic improvisations. Though enormously influential, especially on such colleagues in the Ellington reed section as Harry Carney and Ben Webster, he eluded imitators.

After less than three weeks at the Cotton Club, he was featured on two immensely appealing Ellington records: W. C. Handy's "Yellow Dog Blues" and Spencer Williams's "Tishomingo Blues," playing soprano sax on the former and alto on the latter. On the basis of those solos, he seems to have been born fully formed, but Hodges himself described his style as an amalgamation of what he learned from Sidney Bechet, who personally motivated him, and Armstrong — likely sources for his wasteless elegance and peerless glissandi. His affection for Bechet was further reflected in his devotion to the soprano sax, an instrument he helped keep alive through the early ‘40s, when he decided to concentrate exclusively on alto.”

- Gary Giddins, Visions of Jazz, The First Century [1998]

“It's hard to keep track of some jazzmen. One week they're with so-and-so's band, the next week with a different group. It seems they change jobs as easily as they change clothes —and sometimes as often. But when a man joins the Ellington band, he usually stays.

Take the two senior members of the band. Harry Carney has been with the band since he was 17, and that was 36 years ago. Johnny Hodges, except from 1951-55, has been an Ellingtonian since 1928. So strong has been the association of men and band that Hodges' flowing, sensuous alto and Carney's full-blooded baritone are as much a part of the "Ellington sound" as are plunger-muted brass and Duke's piano.

But the Hodges-Carney relationship extends beyond their careers in the Ellington band. Both are from the Boston, Mass., area, and though Hodges is four years older than Carney, they were boyhood chums.”

- Don DeMichael, “Double Play: Carney to Hodges to Ellington,” Downbeat, June 7, 1962

“Back to back or side by side, Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges form a duo which, in terms of sustained jazz artistry, has never been rivaled.

"Johnny Hodges," Ellington said, "has complete independence of expression. He says what he wants to say on the horn, and that is it. He says it in his language, which is specific, and you could say that his is pure artistry. He's the only man I know who can pick up a cold horn and play in tune without tuning up. And I've heard plenty of cats who can't play in tune if they tune up all day."

His qualities have been similarly emphasized by other associates. "Rab's a pure jazzman," said Russell Procope, who plays alto saxophone alongside him and is another veteran of the big bands. "Above all," observed Clark Terry, "he's always been true to himself." The late John Coltrane, who once worked for Hodges, said years later, "He still kills me!" Paul Gonsalves, another section mate, was more explicit: "He is, in my opinion, the top alto of jazz. He has done so much, and he has remained himself all along. I wouldn't expect a pioneer like him to change just to be fashionable, but the fact is his style has that basic, earthy quality which really endures. As one of the mainstays of the Ellington band, he contributes greatly in the section as well as in his solos. He has a wonderful sense of rhythm, an exceptional feeling for the blues, and a rich, romantic way with numbers like Passion Flower, a way that is all his own. Besides the earthiness of his playing, there is also a professional sophistication, but when he really feels like blowing he stirs us all." Another perceptive comment came from an unlikely source, Lawrence Welk. "He plays from the heart rather than from the notes," he said. "Besides everything else, he plays the prettiest saxophone of anyone I know."”

- Stanley Dance, The World of Duke Ellington, [1970]

For Jazz fans of a certain age, the name “Johnny Hodges” needs no context; nor do the nicknames “Jeep,” “Rab” and Rabbit.” These names immediately conjure up Johnny, an alto saxophonist who had a long association with Duke Ellington, in particular, and with the first half century of Jazz, in general.

But even for those of us who know Johnny Hodges’ music, few of us knew much about the man himself and he has remained somewhat of a mystery.

But the unknown Hodges is finally explained in detail with the publication of 

Con Chapman’s RABBIT"S BLUES: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges [2019] another of Oxford University’s fine books on the subject of Jazz, a series that owes so much to the enlightened sponsorship and guidance of its late editor, Sheldon Meyer [1926-2006].

Con describes the erroneous “information,” obscurity and ambiguity he dealt with when writing what has to be considered the seminal biography of Johnny Hodges [1907-1970] this way in his PROLOGUE:

“HE WAS THEN, and is still now, a bit of a mystery.

The first name by which he is known does not appear on his birth certificate; his given name does not appear on his death certificate. Several sources state that he had a middle name—Keith—but he didn't. A reviewer for a New York newspaper referred to him incorrectly as "Jimmy." Some writers claimed that he got his own last name wrong or didn't know how to spell it, assertions belied by his signature. He went by at least seven nicknames and four pseudonyms.

His birth year is regularly cited as 1906, yet his birth certificate shows that he was born in 1907. One of his albums gives the year of his death as 1960, but it is a matter of public record that he died in 1970.

When his picture first appeared in a national magazine he was confused with Harry Carney, his boyhood chum and bandmate in Duke Ellington's orchestra for many years. Two Chicago radio stations inexplicably insisted on mispronouncing his surname as "Hargus." A newspaper in England praised his trumpet solos, and on American albums he was listed as a trombonist6 or a tenor saxophonist," although he played none of those instruments.

His natural reticence didn't help; he was the Calvin Coolidge of the jazz world of his day, never saying three words when two would do. He was not an approachable person, rarely giving interviews and revealing little when he did; in the words of Stanley Dance, who got more out of him than any other writer, he "regarded his private life as private." Rex Stewart, a trumpeter in the Ellington band, said of him that "little of his personality emerged from the cocoon of his imperturbability." If, as Lytton Strachey wrote in Eminent Victorians, "ignorance is the first requisite of the historian," then the subject of this book provides the biographer with a fertile field to plow.

But the taciturn figure he struck on and off the stage was diametrically at odds with the sounds — by turns languorous and inflamed — that he produced when he played. Despite the ambiguities concerning the mundane details of the nearly three score and three years of his life, he could be immediately and positively identified, then and now, by that most ephemeral of things: a single musical note, one of the few musicians in the history of jazz about whom that assertion can be made as anything more than hyperbole.

This is Johnny Hodges's story.”

Thus begins Con’s well-researched and well-told biography of one of the most enigmatically important figures in the history of Jazz.

As to the former, there are 35 pages of notes for 174 pages of text!

As regards the latter, Con writing style is a model of clarity and conciseness.

All of the major figures in Jazz should be so blessed to have their story told with a consummate attention to detail which is revealed in such a way that the story becomes a page-turner and not the all-too-often slog through minutiae.  

Other highlights for me include more information about Johnny’s formative years in the greater Boston area, his childhood friendship with baritone saxophonist Harney Carney [and their earliest associations with Duke Ellington] and Hodges’ connection with soprano saxophonist extraordinaire Sidney Bechet. 

My favorite chapter in the book is the one devoted to Johnny Hodges’ tone which is universally acknowledged as the most distinctive feature of his playing.

“British poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin described Hodges' tone thus: "So bland, so clear, so voluptuously voiced with portamento (gliding gracefully from note to note) and glissandi (gliding from one pitch to another but not continuously, unlike portamento) and yet so essentially hot, Hodges' alto tone sounds the reverse of accidental. But it is not unduly studied."

Con goes on to discuss the anatomy of tone: the relationship of speed and volume to the quality of tone development, Hodges’ acknowledgement of the New Orleans style in his tonal quality and how he incorporated the following Sidney Bechet caveats into his playing:

“ You put your whole body into your music. Lean into the note. The horn is you." Bechet disparaged the notion that virtuosity was paramount, telling neophytes to practice on a single note: "See how many ways you play that note—growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That's how you express your feelings in this music. It's like talking." 

In this early chapter, as you progress through the rich detail the Con provides which allows the reader to examine every facet in the development of Hodges unique style of playing, one soon gets the impression that this is no casual portrayal, but rather, a fascinating study of an important Jazz musician's life.

From this examination of sonority the reader is treated to a description of what it was like for a musician to be “scuffling in New York” [in the 1920s]. In the chapter, he describes how Johnny made a living during the fledgling years of his career and who Johnny’s saxophone competitors were on the Big Apple Jazz scene, among them, not surprisingly, names like Benny Carter, Jimmy Dorsey, and Frankie Trumbauer.

Of course, as one would imagine, the biography really kicks into high gear when discussing The Duke beginning with the chapter entitled “The Beginning of the Partnership” which serves as a prelude to Johnny’s long association with Ellington and the various members of his orchestra. 

After taking a moment to describe the personal side of Johnny’s story with a chapter on “Women and Children [Chapter 7],” Con segues into a series of chapters that coincide with highlights of Ellingtonia and Johnny’s contributions to them. He also provides us with some insights into the dynamics that would prevail between these two strong personalities throughout their working relationship as noted in the following excerpts: 

“Hodges was, as one intimate of the two men put it, "rude" to Ellington "time and time again," and the reason may have been that, while Hodges was responsible for the orchestra's most sensuous sounds, it was the leader of the band who profited most from them. Hodges may have thought in his more bitter moods that, in the words of the old blues song, he was fattening frogs for snakes, or playing John Alden to Ellington's Miles Standish.”

“After he joined the Ellington orchestra in 1928, Hodges would regularly record outside of Duke's auspices, sometimes when he was free to do so, at other times when he was prohibited by contract and thus forced to play incognito. Ellington would sometimes be accused of unfairly taking legal credit for works his musicians had created, but he was magnanimous in allowing them to earn extra money by playing with others. Several Ellingtonians benefited from this liberal moonlighting policy, but it was Hodges who was in greatest demand for a bandleader or producer looking to add the high gloss of his finish to a recording.”

One wonders if the antagonism between Hodges and Ellington may have added further impetus to Johnny’s efforts to be “his own man,” a driving force that would ultimately culminate in Hodges leading his own small groups in the early 1950s as covered in “The Rabbit Strays” [Chapter 14]. 

And although “The Rabbit Returns” in Chapter 15, this reunion with Ellington would be followed by stints “Outside the Ellington Constellation: The 1950s and 1960s” [Chapter 16].

I was also particularly taken with Chapter 17 - “The Quality of Song” - and found it to be intriguing and interesting because it deals with song quality as an aspect of the texture [sonority] of Johnny’s playing that helps give it its uniqueness.

And the meaning of “Lagomorphology” - the title of Chapter 18 - is explained this way:

“WE ARE LEFT with the question, after all the recordings and one-night stands have been accounted for, who was Johnny Hodges? A picture emerges from Hodges' words and actions, along with scraps of information contributed by different observers that, like the various versions of the samurai's death in Kurosawa's Rashomon, sometimes conflict with each other. If students of Bird (Charlie Parker) were ornithologists, we may need to figuratively pursue lagomorphology (the study of rabbits) in order to understand Johnny Hodges.”

The reader in then launched into -

“He played several brands of saxophone, including Conn 6M and Buescher 400 model altos and a Bucscher straight soprano sax.' At the end of his career he also played a Vito brand alto, manufactured by Leblanc. He preferred a white Brilhardt mouthpiece, model 5.”

And more lagomorphology -

“Hodges was a member of the Freemasons, the fraternal organization that dates to the fourteenth century and prohibits discussions of politics and religion among members at their gatherings. If, like many other older jazz musicians, he declined to take a public stand during the civil rights upheaval of the 1960s, he was nonetheless sensitive to the turmoil of those years and to the occasional need for acts of personal grace to bridge the prevailing mood of racial polarization.”

And even more lagomorphology - 

“He was a gambler, particularly at "tonk," a form of gin rummy." He claimed to have great success at games of chance such as Keno, the numbers, and lotteries, but as someone who insisted on being paid in cash and who carried around what Harry Carney called a "Mexican bankroll"—a large bill wrapped around a bundle of singles—it is possible that he exaggerated his winnings; gambling, like fishing and sex, is a subject about which men have been known to make inflated claims.”

In Chapter 19,The Blues, Con’s treatment of the subject of whether or not Hodges was a Blues player - or as the book’s title states, RABBIT”S BLUES - is beautifully encapsulated in the following excerpt:

“But the blues as played by Hodges and the music commonly described as the blues today are so different as to be almost two different genres. The popular understanding of the term blues as this book is written consists of species that don't represent the entire genus. The music that is sold as the blues today is of two types: first, urban, electrified blues, and second, acoustic country blues, both dominated by the guitar. The blues of the Louisiana jazzmen that Hodges imbibed has largely been forgotten or is now misplaced in the cornball catch-all category "Dixieland." In the words of Ralph Ellison, by "the twentieth century the blues divided and became, on the one hand, a professionalized form of entertainment, while remaining, on the other, a form of folklore," with jazz and horn-based blues treated as the former, and guitar-based blues considered as the latter, even as that style has become ever more mannered. Jazz scholar Sidney Finkelstein found in the blues that Hodges played a further dimension, saying, "[T]he folk-song character of many of Ellington's blues is of a sweeter type than those of the Mississippi blues singers or the Louisiana jazzmen, suggesting that they have their origins in the mountain ballads which have been the source of other jazz standards such as 'Careless Love Blues' or 'How Long Blues.'" If a promoter of a blues festival were to book a band playing blues in the style of Johnny Hodges today, the audience would greet the music with consternation, even catcalls—"That's not the blues!"—and demands for refunds. The blues of today comes in a limited number of shades, using fewer than all twelve notes in the musical scale, whereas the blues as played by Hodges is multi-hued and performed by ensembles that include a number of wind instruments. How to explain this apparent case of mistaken identity?”

Con Chapman’s biography finally removes the enigma that often clouds our understanding of Johnny Hodges and in doing so, enlightens our appreciation of one of the singular figures in the first half century of the history of Jazz.

If you are a Jazz fan, you won’t want to miss this reading experience.

Con Chapman’s artistry as a writer and Johnny Hodges, the man and his music, make for an irresistible combination.

For order information go here.

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