Book review

Con Chapman: “Rabbit’s Blues- The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges”

Con Chapman – Rabbit’s Blues – The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges

(Oxford University Press. Book review by Frank Griffith)

Con Chapman’s biography of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges catapults him into the pantheon of timeless jazz immortals. Born in Boston in 1907, Hodges picked up gigs as a pianist at age 13 for rent parties, and then quickly moved on to the alto and soprano saxophones. During this time he played in Sidney Bechet’s band, and the legendary New Orleans soprano saxist and clarinettist took young Johnny under his wing. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me”, said Hodges. “He would tell me to learn this and learn that”.

Moving to New York City in the early 1920s, Hodges would begin his forty-two year tenure (with a few years’ break in the 1950s) in Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, ending in 1970, the year of his passing, at age 63. Hodges held a most singular voice in jazz. He didn’t play the horn as much as sing through it. His sound gets full due in this book. He could negotiate through any tempo but he shaped his sound at slow tempi in a distinctive and powerful way that is unsurpassed. It has been argued that the Ellington band avoided hiring vocalists because of of Hodges’ deeply lyrical and songlike playing that occupied the emotional “space” taken by a singer.

Hodges was famously taciturn, communicating everything that he felt directly through his horn. Chapman brings vibrant life to one of jazz’s greatest altoists admired by everyone from Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and even Benny Goodman, who described Hodges as “by far the greatest man on the alto sax that I ever heard”. Charlie Parker compared him to Lily Pons, the operatic soprano. Before joining Ellington, Hodges participated in late night NYC “cutting sessions” with bands led by Chick Webb, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Luckey Roberts. These featured the more roughly-hewn, bluesy, swaggering side of his musical personality. As the first ever biography of Hodges, “Rabbit’s Blues” details Hodges as one of the premier artists in jazz history as well as his role of co-composer with Ellington.

In his eulogy of Hodges (1907-1970) Duke Ellington ended with the words “”Never the world’s highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it often brought tears to the eyes- this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges”.

Chapman’s overview that Hodges’ greatness in achieving sensuousness without sentimentality is a recurring theme throughout this fine book celebrating this great individualist in jazz.

Categories: Book review

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