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Book Review

Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges


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Rabbit's Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges
Con Chapman
ISBN: #978-0-19-0655390-3
Oxford University Press

It's difficult to fathom the existence of a jazz musician in the position of a featured soloist of an internationally recognized large ensemble, year in and year out, for decades, making a good living and deriving a fair amount of artistic satisfaction from this endeavor, as well as consistently receiving kudos from peers, critics and fans alike. From the perspective of the 21st century, when the preponderance of jazzmen and women are products of universities and music conservatories, it's equally hard to comprehend how anyone could reach such an exalted status with almost no formal instruction, questionable sight reading skills, not to mention a willingness to—stylistically speaking—stay on a particular course, even as the winds of musical change constantly blow around him.

In less than two hundred pages of text, Con Chapman fashions a meticulously researched, lucid and sympathetic account of a jazzman who fits all of these specifications: Alto and soprano saxophonist Johnny Hodges, primarily known for his longstanding tenure in the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Unlike some jazz biographies, the book doesn't threaten to collapse beneath the weight of a welter of names, dates, places and gigs. The fact that Chapman ably surveys Hodges's early years in Boston, the ins and outs of his career with Ellington, a few years spent leading bands of his own in the early 1950s, as well as the workings of a number of noteworthy small group recording sessions, is indeed impressive yet doesn't come close to accounting for volume's depth and breadth.

The book's core consists of themes that provide ample food for thought and remind the reader that history isn't bound to a singular interpretation of events and ideas. A handful of major topics include the unique tone produced by Hodges, the effect it had on audiences, and how it compared to his successors Charlie Parker and John Coltrane; the absence of firmly established saxophone techniques in the early twentieth century; the formative influence of New Orleans based musicians Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong on Hodges's work, particularly as it applies to conventional notions of musical literacy; Hodges's thorny relationship with Ellington; the variety of blues practiced in the United States; Ellington's appropriation and degrees of compensation for ideas and material initiated by Hodges and Billy Strayhorn; the songlike quality and the blues basis of Hodges's playing; and the evolution of jazz from music for dance and bodily movement to a intellectual listening experience. Precise, well-crafted, witty prose seasoned with nifty turns of phrase and illuminating literary references make it easy to appreciate these weighty matters without donning hip boots or acquiring an advanced degree.

In addition to juggling the particulars of specific themes and deftly advancing the narrative Chapman provides brief, chapter long detours—such as Hodges's relationship with his wives and children, his competition on the alto sax in the pre-bebop years, and his tastes in food and drink. Under the author's capable direction, a selection of some of the particulars of Hodges's everyday existence easily mingles with substantive matters of jazz practice.

Because the swift pace of changes in jazz fashion often obscure, marginalize and cast off the contributions of practitioners of earlier, foundational styles, Chapman does the music a service by shedding light on the significance of a musician who is rapidly fading from view. His thoughtful, nuanced account of Hodges's skills, artistry and methods doesn't resemble the bluster and narrow range of ideas of a zealous fan with an axe to grind. Integrating brief, illuminating passages from Cynthia Ozick, T.S. Eliot, Gerry Mulligan and Homer, the last chapter of Rabbit's Blues encourages the reader to be wary of conflating new music and quality, or reflexively heaping praise on work that is different for the sake of being different. Chapman makes a strong case for Hodges's making original, idiosyncratic music nourished by the jazz tradition, setting his own standard, and staying true to himself in the face of the emergence of the prodigious technique and harmonic sophistication of Parker and Coltrane.

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