HumorOutcasts.com is proud to show off the latest work from one of our most prolific writers Con Chapman
Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges (University of Oxford Press, September 2019) Pays Overdue Homage to One of History’s Most Influential Saxophone Players
Duke Ellington called saxophonist Johnny Hodges’ tone “so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes.” Benny Goodman described Hodges as “by far the greatest man on alto sax that I ever heard.” Charlie Parker compared Hodges to Lily Pons, the operatic soprano.
Ranked as the top alto saxophonist before protean innovator Charlie Parker by jazz polls, then again after his death, Hodges had a powerful influence on Duke Ellington’s music and gave John Coltrane his first big break.
Yet, his name has been all but forgotten.
Now, for the first time ever, his career, his accomplishments and his role as one of the most important and influential saxophone players in the history of jazz are the subject of a biography. Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges by Con Chapman (University of Oxford Press, September 2, 2019) chronicles Johnny Hodges’ path from short, shy and skittish boy in Cambridge, Massachusetts nicknamed “Rabbit”—perhaps for the speed with which he ran from truant officers, perhaps for his looks—to longtime pillar of the Duke Ellington band.
In recounting the remarkable story of this mid-twentieth-century black musician who taught himself to play the saxophone by imitating Sydney Bechet and struggled to sight read, yet whose name as a musician had spread all over Boston by the time he was fourteen, Rabbit’s Blues simultaneously offers a detailed history of the jazz of Hodges’ time and the musicians he played with; from Sidney Bechet, Chick Webb and Willie “The Lion Smith” in his early years, then on to a four decade career with Ellington, the book vividly depicts the relationships and dynamics that shaped each musician’s path and shows how these paths converged.
It also pays homage to the most renowned of Hodges’ gifts: his tone. British poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin described Hodges’ celebrated tone as “so bland, so clear, so voluptuously voiced with portamento (gliding gracefully from note to note) and glissandi (gliding from one pitch to another but not continuously) and yet so essentially hot.” It has been referred to as “sexy” and “bigger than virtuosity,” earned rare praise from Frank Sinatra, and led some to call Hodges “the Ella Fitzgerald of the sax.”
Although the book takes readers on tour with Hodges from New York, where he ultimately settled, to Chicago, New Orleans, Paris, and beyond, it places a strong focus on Hodges’ native Boston, depicting the era’s jazz scene and its segregated music venues and unions. It explains why Boston’s South End became known as “Saxophonist Ghetto,” and elaborates on why New York became a mecca for jazz while Boston remained a backwater. Hodges is depicted in a mural on the Harriet Tubman House in the South End that hundreds of thousands of people pass each year, yet few know of him or realize it is there.
Following Hodges’ death in 1970, his widow, Cue Hodges, noted, “Writers talk about Johnny like he was another instrument that Ellington played. But he was his own man
all the way—with or without Duke.”
While correcting the existing, inaccurate record of Hodges life, Rabbit’s Blues makes this message crystal clear.
About the Author
Con Chapman’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Boston Globe and The Christian Science Monitor, and his writings on jazz have appeared in The American Bystander, The Boston Herald and Brilliant Corners. He is the author of two novels, thirty-three stage plays, fifty books of humor, and The Year of the Gerbil, a history of the 1978 Red Sox-Yankees pennant race. Follow Con on Facebook and Twitter