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Playlist: The Balladry of Johnny Hodges


Listen to the music of Johnny Hodges!

News | Mar, 31st 2020

In his eulogy for Johnny Hodges (1907-1970), Duke Ellington wrote of the alto saxophonist's inimitable tone as “so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes.” Similarly, legendary artists like Benny Goodman and John Coltrane have cited Johnny Hodges as one of the greatest—if not the greatest—saxophone masters ever.

Indeed, the alto and soprano saxophone virtuoso, nicknamed “Rabbit,” wielded one of the most poignant and lyrical tones in all of jazz. Noted for his rich vibrato and sweepingly lyrical playing that always recalled his early hero and mentor Sidney Bechet, Hodges was also astonishingly versatile as a player, capable of extraordinary melodic runs as well as soulful blues work. Joining Ellington’s band in 1928, Hodges would shape the orchestra’s sound as its lead alto player. Though he did at times depart the band to lead side projects of his own, Hodges would ultimately remain with Ellington until Hodges’ passing in 1970. In turn, throughout their four decades together, Ellington would feature Hodges everywhere: from the iconic alto solo on 1932’s "It Don’t Mean a Thing," to the heart-wrenching, Billy Strayhorn-penned swan song "Blood Count" of 1967, to Hodges’ beautiful blues work on "Blues for New Orleans" during his final sessions with Ellington in 1970.

For this playlist, we’ve assembled 30 iconic performances of Hodges’ spanning from 1928 to 1970. We’ll hear his earliest available solo with "Yellow Dog Blues," recorded in 1928. From there, we’ll explore some of his iconic solos and features with Ellington throughout the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s. 

Along the way, we’ve also included other gems: amazing guest appearances in 1937 and 1938 alongside Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, and Lionel Hampton; some of his early dates as a bandleader, including his pop hit "Jeep’s Blues" from 1938; and even some fantastic jam sessions that pair him alongside fellow luminaries like Lester Young, Benny Goodman, and Charlie Parker.

While we’ll hear some of Hodges at his most swinging and lyrical throughout these pieces, we’ll also hear his rhythm-and-blues side too. His 1951 hit "Castle Rock" (where he cedes the solo spaces to tenor saxophonist Al Sears) as well as his 1960s combo with organist Wild Bill Davis help show off this side of Hodges.


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