More than anyone else, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges (1907-70) epitomized the soulful elegance of the Duke Ellington Orchestra. His immediately recognizable sound, characterized by sensuous grace in caressing a melody and an incomparable blues-infused tonality, made him and fellow altoist Charlie Parker the standard-bearers for the instrument. In this slim yet heavily footnoted biography, author Con Chapman documents his fellow Bostonian, affectionately nicknamed “Rabbit.” The bulk of this first bio on Hodges’ nearly uninterrupted 40-year stint with the Ellington Orchestra moves through segments delving into his early years as a Sidney Bechet-enamored, self-taught prodigy commuting back and forth from Boston to NYC, a short foray leading his own band in the early Fifties, and his numerous recording dates as a leader and sideman. Most interesting are Hodges’ relationships to Ellington, pianist/composer Billy Strayhorn, jazz impresario Norman Grantz, and a young John Coltrane, who he fired from his band for drug problems. Although an engaging read, Rabbit’s Blues would’ve benefited from fleshing out Hodges’ associations with these and other seminal musicians in his life, especially Ellington. Nonetheless, jazz aficionados will be elated by this long-awaited spotlight of a true jazz original.
Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodgesby Con Chapman
Oxford University Press, 240 pp., $27.95