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Johnny Hodges, Wild Bill Davis

Alto saxophonist and clarinetist Johnny Hodges – born on July 25, 1907, in Cambridge, Massachusetts – was best known as a long-time member of Duke Ellington’s big band as well as a solo artist in his own right. He first studied percussion and piano before moving to Boston and discovering the saxophone through his interactions with sax players Harry Carney, Howard E. Johnson, and Charlie Holmes. Teaching himself the saxophone, he began playing at home gatherings and local clubs, earning the nickname ‘The Rabbit.’ After seeing saxophonist Sidney Bechet live and playing for him backstage, Bechet encouraged him to keep playing and then gave him formal lessons. Johnny Hodges then moved to New York, where he joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra in November 1928. He then became one of the most respected sax players on the scene, earning praise during his career from John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, and Benny Goodman. Apart from a short period in the first half of the 1950s, Johnny Hodges remained a core member of Ellington’s band until his death in 1970. Starting on the soprano saxophone, he eventually switched to the alto saxophone. Although he first recorded in 1946, he began to receive attention with albums such as In a Tender Mood (1952), Collates (1952), Collates No. 2 (1953), Memories of Ellington (1954), Castle Rock (1955), Used to Be Duke (1956), The Blues (1956), Ellingtonia '56 (1956), The Big Sound (1957) and Blues-a-Plenty (1958). On Ellington’s 1959 albums Back to Back and Side by Side, he was credited as co-lead, which earned him more commercial recognition. Throughout his career, Johnny Hodges’ music style evolved and his repertoire including swing, big band, blues, easy listening ballads, bebop, and cool jazz. He continued to release a series of solo albums including Blue Hodge (1962), Sandy’s Gone (1963), Everybody Knows (1964), Con-Soul and Sax (1965), Blue Pyramid (1966), and Three Shades of Blue (1970). Throughout his solo career, he worked with some of the most respected jazz musicians around including Grant Green, Randy Brecker, Ben Webster, John Coltrane, Eric Gale, Clark Terry, Kenny Burrell, Hank Jones, and many others. Johnny Hodges died of a heart attack in New York on May 11, 1970, at the age of 62. His death occurred just two weeks after he participated in Duke Ellington's New Orleans Suite.


©Copyright Music Story Stephen Schnee 2023

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