"Never the world's most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes, this was Johnny Hodges. Because of this great loss, our band will never sound the same. Johnny Hodges sometimes sounded beautiful, sometimes romantic, and sometimes people spoke of his tone as being sensuous. With the exception of a year or so, almost his entire career was with us. So far as our wonderful listening audience was concerned, there was a great feeling of expectancy when they looked up and saw Johnny Hodges sitting in the middle of the saxophone section, in the front row. I am glad and thankful that I had the privilege of presenting Johnny Hodges for forty years, night after night. I imagine I have been much envied, but thanks to God....” Duke Ellington eulogy.
John Cornelius Hodges was born on the 25th July 1906 in Cambridge, Mass. He started his musical career playing drums and piano before taking up the saxophone at the age of 14, beginning on the soprano and later the alto. Originally self-taught he was given lessons by Sydney Bechet, whom he got to know through his sister. He followed Bechet into Willie 'The Lion' Smith's quartet at the Rhythm Club (around 1924), then played in the house band with Bechet's Club ‘Basha’ in Harlem. He continued to live in Boston and traveled to New York at weekends playing with such musicians as Bobby Sawyer (1925), Lloyd Scott (1926), then from late 1926 with the great Chick Webb at The Paddock Club and The Savoy Ballroom, etc. followed by a short stint with Luckey Roberts.
In May 1928 Johnny joined Duke Ellington's orchestra and he remained a mainstay of the group for the next 40 years. From his first recording in 1928 he revealed his authority and technical mastery of the saxophone, playing with a broad, sweeping tone and producing impressive, cascading runs. In the opinion of many people, he soon became Duke's most valuable soloist. He made hundreds of recordings with Duke and from 1937 led his own small studio group drawn from the orchestra which made many successful series of recordings for Victor and other labels. Titles included “Jeep's Blues,” “Hodge Podge,” “The Jeep is Jumpin” all of which were co-written with Duke. Also in this period of great creativity he played in many other small groups with musicians such as Lionel Hampton, Teddy Wilson, etc., producing classics of the period.