This review article by Jack Chambers was published in Coda 298 (July/August 2001), pages 16-20.

Sweet as Bear Meat: The Paradox of Johnny Hodges

by Jack Chambers © 2001

Johnny Hodges as Leader of the Band: Selected CDs

Hodge Podge. Columbia Jazz Masterpieces EK 66972 [1995]. Hodges’s belated debut as leader in 1938-39 resulted in "Jeep’s Blues," "Wanderlust," "Rent Party Blues" and 13 other classic tracks, selected and annotated for reissue by Helen Oakley, the original producer.

Passion Flower 1940-46. Bluebird 66616 [1995]. The classics kept coming in 1940, when Hodges’s small-band sides featured "Day Dream" and "Passion Flower" by Ellington’s new arranger, Billy Strayhorn, and another, "Things Ain’t What They Used to Be," by Mercer Ellington, with the other four by Ellington and Hodges

Castle Rock (Polygram POCJ-2726) and the other Norgran and Clef sides Hodges made on his 1951-55 break from the Ellington orchestra are currently available as Japanese facsimiles, and are overdue for more user-friendly reissue.

The Complete Verve Small Group Sessions 1956-61. Mosaic MD6-200 [2000]. Into its 200th box set, Mosaic stuffs a surfeit of Hodges’s small-band swing, amounting to seven hours on six CDs, half of it previously unheard, with Ben Webster in the band about half the time.

Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges Play the Blues Back to Back and Side by Side (both Verve) preserve ten brilliant blues tracks from 1959 unaccountably missing from the above Mosaic box (plus another session without Ellington); Sweets Edison and the piano player conspire to showcase Hodges at his most imperious.

Johnny Hodges, Soloist, with Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra. Verve 8452 [1999]. This is actually the Ellington orchestra moonlighting in 1961, in a short program (37 minutes) of Hodges’s specialties, now reissued with crystal-clear digital restoration.

Johnny Hodges at Sportspalast, Berlin. Pablo 2620 (2 CD). Hodges took an Ellingtonian septet on a European tour while Ellington dallied in Paris in 1961; with no one to force them to play A Train, C Jam Blues and the other concert pieces, they played them anyway--glibly, but energetically.


"I had my own band and I had to scuffle, and when you scuffle you can’t play what you like," Johnny Hodges once explained, " but when you are famous and popular you can." It was October 1958, and he had just arrived in England with the Duke Ellington Orchestra for the first time since rejoining the band. The reporter for Melody Maker wanted to know why Hodges had given up his own band in 1955 and returned to Ellington’s sax section, where he had sat for 23 years (and would sit for 15 more, until his death in 1970).

Talking never came easy to Hodges, and his answer here, a long one for him, is really a paradox. In Ellington’s orchestra, he followed Ellington’s agenda, traveled Ellington’s itinerary, and played Ellington’s music. Far from playing what he liked, as he said, it appeared to some onlookers that he was really in bondage to the Duke, and the knowledge that Hodges’s sound, both in ensemble and solos, contributed more than any other single sonic element to making Ellington’s orchestra "famous and popular" only made matters worse, in their eyes. All these things were true, of course, except the conclusion. Hodges truly was playing what he liked, and the boss’s agenda, itinerary and music were the annoyances he had to put up with to do it.

Ellington understood the paradox. (He would, of course.) He had no illusions that he was dictating Hodges’s role with his music, or any intention of doing so. "Johnny Hodges has complete independence of expression," he said in Music is My Mistress. "He says what he wants to say on the horn, and that is it. He says it in his language, which is specific, and you could say that his is pure artistry."

If Norman Granz had understood the paradox he might have saved himself some frustration and some money. It was Granz who persuaded Hodges to leave Ellington and try his hand as a leader. "Sure, I pulled Johnny and the others out of the band," Granz admitted, when Derek Jewell asked him about his role in the defection of Hodges in 1951 along with Lawrence Brown and Sonny Greer. "I’d used him on jam sessions, and from time to time after the war I’d presented Duke’s band in concerts. I felt Johnny was kept down in the band. I wanted to record him outside of the Ellington context, and that’s why he and the others came out."

Although Granz later negotiated Ellington’s lucrative soundtrack contract for Frank Sinatra’s Assault on a Queen (1966) and the equally lucrative European tours with Ella Fitzgerald in 1966 and 1967 ("acting in effect as my manager," Ellington recalled in his autobiography, though "he never took a percentage or a fee") Granz never tried to hide his dislike for Ellington. His dealings with Hodges, in 1951 and later, were blatant attempts at ruffling Ellington’s legendary composure. "He was incredibly égoiste in the French sense," Granz told Jewell. "It disturbed him equally if the room service didn’t work somewhere, or if Johnny Hodges quit the band. Both upset his life, and he hated it. So he was really piqued when I took Johnny away."

Piqued, maybe, but unbowed. Granz’s timing seemed calculated to ruin Ellington. In the ten months before Granz sponsored the defection of Ellington’s star soloists, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman and Claude Thornhill had all disbanded in the face of bankruptcy. The big bands were dead, and everyone knew it. But Ellington never flinched. He replaced Hodges and Greer with Willie Smith and Louis Bellson, and revitalized his brass section with newcomers Clark Terry, Willie Cook and Britt Woodman. "The only reason we’re still in it is mainly artistic interest," he told Nat Hentoff, using the imperial ‘we’. "We’re not one of those people who stay in the business so long as the business is good. We stay in it 52 weeks a year." Some of the records he made (Ellington Uptown for Columbia [1951-52], Ellington ’55 for Capitol [1953-54]) were far better than anything he had recorded in the previous four years with Hodges, which had been, in retrospect, the nadir of his career.

Hodges, meanwhile, buoyed by his recording contract with Granz’s Clef and Norgran labels, took on the responsibilities of leadership for the first time at the age of 44. He had always felt at ease in studios—Rabbit’s natural habitat, so to speak—and under Granz he was paid handsomely for his time. He recorded more music than Granz could release. The output of his leadership years was finally released in its entirety around 1989 as The Complete Johnny Hodges Sessions 1951-55, Mosaic MR6-126, but is now out of print.

In the studios and out, Hodges surrounded himself mainly with old Ellingtonians. Besides Brown and, briefly, Greer, whose health forced him to retire within a year, there was Al Sears, the tenor saxophonist who had left Ellington three years before. Sears immediately became straw boss, working out itineraries, lining up musicians, doling out pay-cheques, and doing all the other chores that Hodges found distasteful. There were also a few new faces: Emmett Berry played trumpet in 1951-53, J.C. Heard played drums for a while in 1952-53, John Coltrane played tenor in 1954 (but inconspicuously; he would join the Miles Davis Quintet a year later). Most often, the recording sessions were reunions, with Shorty Baker, Jimmy Hamilton, Harry Carney, Billy Strayhorn, and even Louis Bellson, rented for the day.

The repertory was slanted toward Ellington too. Hodges’s new band re-recorded nearly all his star vehicles from the orchestral book ("Come Sunday," "Squaty Roo," "Sophisticated Lady," "Warm Valley," "In a Mellotone," and others). Even his new tunes paid homage to his Ellington connection with titles like "Used to be Duke," "Now Ride the D Train" and "Duke’s Blues." They were mainly riff blues tossed off in the studio, as were numerous others with non-Ellingtonian titles like "Sweet as Bear Meat," "Something to Pat Your Foot To," "What’s I’m Gotchere For" and "Honey Bunny." All were played with typical musical panache and many were gems. Hodges’s small-band recording of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" for Clef in 1954 was so striking that Ellington orchestrated it after Hodges returned, and called it at nearly every concert they played in their remaining 15 years together.

Even the successes of Hodges’s band came out slightly tainted. They scored a minor hit with "Castle Rock," recorded for Clef in March 1951, but its simple riff was devised by Sears, not Hodges, and its jukebox success came from Sears’s raunchy rhythm-and-blues tenor, the only solo. Sears, not Hodges, set the tone, and Sears, an unabashed advocate of what he called "customer music," meaning rock ‘n’ roll in 1951, went on to book rock groups, supply publicity and occasionally sign himself up for rock concerts as Big Al Sears. "I played two or three notes, and I stomped my foot, and I stopped the show for him every night," Sears told Joe Goldberg. Sears went his own way in 1952 and Hodges’s band ended up playing schmaltz for homebodies every weekday on an afternoon television show. By 1955, Whitney Balliett wrote in the New Yorker, "Hodges had become an out-of-fashion leader of a small semi-rock-and-roll group."


Hodges returned to the Ellington orchestra in October 1955. He might have felt chastened except that Granz, in a face-saving gesture, renewed Hodges’s recording contract for two or three small-band sessions a year (on the new Verve label starting in 1956). Hodges could thus hang onto the one part of his leadership he had actually enjoyed, and it was all the sweeter because Granz made a point of paying Hodges more for his studio work than Ellington could, even though Hodges was the highest-paid member of the orchestra. Granz’s prodigality gave Hodges the moral high ground, and he flaunted it onstage by smirking at the leader under cover of an ovation or by rubbing his thumb and index finger in the filthy-lucre mime.

Ellington must have known it was worthwhile. A chastened Hodges would surely have been useless. Instead, Hodges returned with his old "kiss-my-ass attitude," in the bon mot of the actor Jose Ferrer (according to Don George). Time did not mellow him. In 1964, when Mercer Ellington took over as band manager, Hodges insisted on being paid in cash daily, thus forcing Mercer to carry a briefcase full of bills on road trips. "When I was pickin’ cotton I used to get paid at the end of every day," Hodges said, leaving it to the listeners to figure out where the cotton fields sat in relation to Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts, where he was born and raised.

When Hodges reclaimed his lead chair in the reed section, he heard unfamiliar voices all around him. Sam Woodyard had joined on drums a few weeks before him, Jimmy Woode, the bassist, a few months before that, valve trombonist John Sanders was added to the other young brass players, and there was also Paul Gonsalves, a five-year veteran of the band on tenor saxophone but relatively unknown to Hodges. It was a band on the brink of rebirth, of course, starting at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 7, 1956. Hodges was himself reborn at Newport, nine months after rejoining the band, proclaiming in "Jeep’s Blues" that he was ready to resume his central place in Ellington’s music. Until his sudden death in his dentist’s office on March 11, 1970, Hodges’s role in the band was not only undiminished but enhanced. Along with his old showcases, now revived, he had many new ones tailor-made for him including "Star-Cross’d Lovers" (1957), "Flirtibird" (1959), "Isfahan" (1966) and "Blood Count" (1967), inspiring him to nonpareil performances.

All the while, he maintained his shadow career as leader. Granz’s munificence comes abundantly clear with the new 6-CD Complete Verve Small Group Sessions 1956-61 (Mosaic MD6-200), seven hours and seven minutes of music, all complete takes with no alternates, of which little more than half was issued at the time. (Besides this, all or part of four other unissued sessions, 16 titles altogether, another CD-ful, have disappeared without a trace.)

The formats are predictable, with Hodges surrounding himself mainly with his band-mates and playing swing and riffs with total assurance and total relaxation. At the simplest level, they are full of invention and devoid of sweat. There is definitely a glow to the first year’s work in the wake of the Newport triumph, especially a September session that produced nine rousing tracks in a single sitting. At the opposite pole, there is a somnambulant session from 1960 with Sonny Greer as guest drummer. By 1951, when Greer left Ellington, "Sonny was beginning to lose his legs," Mercer Ellington said. "He was in trouble with [bright] tempos…and Pop had to revert to more comfortable tempos for him to be effective." Finding Greer’s comfort zone almost a decade later forced Hodges into something approaching trance music. It makes the other sessions seem all the livelier. Seven of the 13 surviving sessions include Ben Webster in what was an exquisite partnership with Hodges, and there are welcome guest appearances by non-Ellingtonians Jimmy Rowles, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown, Gus Johnson and Mel Lewis. They all serve Hodges bountifully.

At some point, Granz must have realized that he never really succeeded in extricating Hodges from what he called "the Ellington context." Ellington’s presence is felt in the ensemble voicings, with Hodges’s lead penetrating the group sound as it does the orchestra, and in the range of tempos, never far from medium, fitted especially to Hodges’s strengths, and even in the riffs that bubble up behind soloists, which often in Ellington’s scores sound like they might have been Hodges’s collaborations and sometimes certainly were.

Once in the life of Hodges’s Verve contract, Granz brought Ellington in as co-leader and succeeded in making what are probably Hodges’s best-known, and certainly his best selling, small-group recordings. These two September 1959 sessions, the very best of the Verve material, are not included in the Mosaic box (and a terse endnote simply says they were "not available"). Hodges and Ellington assembled a sextet with Harry (Sweets) Edison on trumpet, Les Spann on guitar, Sam Jones on bass and Jo Jones on drums. The repertoire drew on traditional blues numbers usually associated with Dixieland bands: "Royal Garden Blues," "Beale Street Blues," "Wabash Blues," "Basin Street Blues," "Weary Blues" and "Loveless Love," as well as "St. Louis Blues," Fats Waller’s "Just Squeeze Me" and a pair of Ellington blues tunes, "Stompy Jones" (first recorded 1934) and an obscure 1942 swinger "Goin’ Up" (on which Spann plays flute). The original LP, consisting of all but the last three tunes, was released as Ellington and Hodges Play the Blues Back to Back, and it won accolades for its rare amalgam of urbane but earthy playing. Edison and Jo Jones, distinguished Basie alumni, fit the concept perfectly, and the relative newcomer Spann, part of the Memphis, Tennessee, jazz efflorescence of the day (with Phineas Newborn, George Coleman and Harold Mabern, among others) provides buoyancy in the rhythm section and chips in occasional linear blues solos.

So successful was Back to Back that its three leftover tracks were combined with six titles from an earlier, unreleased Hodges date with Billy Strayhorn on piano (August 1958, included in the Mosaic box) to create a second so-called Ellington and Hodges release, Side by Side. Though Ellington was largely absent on the second, the two releases have proven perennial favourites, never out of print and among the very first Verve transfers to CD. The downside of their popularity is that the two original blues sessions have never been collated and presented as an entity, but the upside, much more important, is that these recordings have reminded thousands of jazz listeners for over 40 years about the small-band genius of Johnny Hodges.

Subsequent Hodges recordings for Granz’s labels were even more unabashedly Ellingtonian. A 1961 recording called Johnny Hodges with Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestra is an Ellington production with the leader in the control booth. (Jimmy Jones played piano, Strayhorn conducted, and Creed Taylor, not Granz, produced it.) It owes its existence to an act of defiance by which Ellington expressed his disaffection with his Columbia recording contract, which he would terminate at the end of the year. A later release, the double-LP Johnny Hodges at Sportspalast, Berlin (now 2-CD on Pablo, Granz’s fourth label), first released in 1978, eight years after Hodges’s death, culls an hour and a half from a European tour arranged by Granz while Ellington was writing the Paris Blues soundtrack and includes only two titles that Hodges and his confreres (Nance, Brown, Carney, Aaron Bell and Woodyard) did not play almost nightly in the orchestra.

Whether the stunning success of Back to Back and Side by Side finally convinced Granz that Hodges was better with Ellington than without him no one will ever know, but given the personalities involved it seems unlikely. It may, instead, have reinforced his conviction that Ellington needed Hodges more than vice-versa. If so, that is a conviction that is not borne out by the available evidence, which is copious thanks largely to Granz himself. The merits of the case show beyond a doubt that Johnny Hodges was a brilliant small-band player as well as an indispensable piece of the Ellington mosaic. Any jazz listener, if forced to choose between one Hodges or the other, would have no hesitation about choosing the big-band soloist. Thankfully, there is no need to choose.

It might be possible to forget, with the high-profile releases from the Granz association, that the small-band genius of Hodges was well established long before Granz came along. Beyond a doubt, it was Hodges’s very first small-band recordings that convinced Granz and everyone else that Hodges was worthy of all the studio time he eventually received. Those early recordings began in 1937, nine years after Hodges had established himself as an individualistic voice in Ellington’s reed section. They came about because Ellington’s manager, Irving Mills, decided to take financial control of Ellington’s recording activities as well as his public performances. Mills inaugurated two labels, one called Master for presenting the orchestra and the other called Variety for presenting smaller units from the band, as Benny Goodman had been doing so successfully with his trio and quartet records.

Ellington put Helen Oakley, then 21, an upper-crust Torontonian working as press agent in his New York office, in charge of coordinating the small-band sessions. Hodges’s turn came third, after Barney Bigard and Cootie Williams, and his first session was disappointing, resulting only in undistinguished covers of pop tunes ("Foolin’ Myself," "A Sailboat in the Moonlight," and two others). It took ten more months, until March 1938, before Hodges got a second chance, and the results forever changed the pecking order of the Ellington soloists. Oakley remembered 30 years later, "Very little was written out….Duke would reminisce at the keyboard until one or another of the men contributed a phrase. ‘Crazy,’ he might comment, with a smile, and all of a sudden, as though of itself, a theme would evolve." One of those themes was "Jeep’s Blues," credited jointly to Ellington and Hodges, and it set the standard for a string of small-band hits in nine recording sessions over the next year and a half, as long as the Variety label lasted. "Disc jockeys and juke boxes filled the air with numbers like ‘Jeep’s Blues,’ ‘Good Gal Blues’ and ‘Rent Party Blues’," Oakley said, "an irresistible sequence of enchanting themes, wails, shouts and low-down laments; authentic gin-mill music that echoed block after block up crowded avenues and down city streets."

The next year, with Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton joining the orchestra and raising it to unparalleled heights, Ellington signed a recording contract with RCA Victor, and the Hodges small-band hits kept flowing with "Good Queen Bess," "Squaty Roo" and "Passion Flower." The personnel remained the same on Victor as on Variety. Hodges chose Cootie Williams, Lawrence Brown, Harry Carney, Ellington, Billy Taylor and Greer; when Ray Nance replaced Williams and Blanton replaced Taylor in the orchestra, they also replaced them in Hodges’s recording unit. Webster, unluckily, never got a turn in Hodges’s small band while they were bandmates, though he played in both Bigard’s and Rex Stewart’s small-band offshoots.

The excellence of these recordings depends partly on the ensemble spirit, which brings to mind the "jungle band" masterpieces of the Cotton Club era, not far in the past when these recordings were made, and similar in instrumentation but with a more supple rhythm. These are indisputable masterpieces of small-band swing. The later Granzian outpouring has the advantage of longer solos and sometimes fuller ensemble passages, but Hodges never needed much space. He was a compact soloist throughout his career, capable of saying his piece in a few notes and setting his theme in a few bars.

Among the glories of these recordings is the simple fact that they are the best place for hearing Hodges play soprano saxophone. He quit playing the soprano forever in November 1940 to spite Ellington, according to legend, who loved its sound but refused Hodges’s demand that his stipend be doubled for playing it as well as the alto saxophone. Of the 16 Variety tracks collected on Columbia Masterworks, Hodges plays soprano on eleven ("Jeep’s Blues," "Empty Ballroom Blues," "I’m in Another World," "Dancing on the Stars," "Wanderlust," "Savoy Strut," "Rent Party Blues," "Good Gal Blues," "Finesse," "Dream Blues" and "Skunk Hollow Blues"). On the Victor small-band sides next year there is one more, "That’s the Blues Old Man." After that, Hodges’s soprano grew moldy in his closet. His rich tone and bold lines with narrow vibrato, silky where his mentor Sidney Bechet is turbulent, were not well enough remembered to exercise what might have been a salutary influence when John Coltrane set the new standard for the soprano 20 years later. Coltrane’s keening, sharp Middle-Eastern timbre had nothing in common with the way Hodges had played the soprano saxophone, and in the hands of some of the people who followed him (Joe Farrell, John Klemmer, Carlos Garnett) sounds much more dated now than Hodges does.

The small-band records are good places to hear Hodges’s alto as well as his soprano saxophone for the same reason. He gets a generous allotment of the three-minute limit. But then they are the best place to hear many things, including total rapport among musicians who share all the precepts of the music they are making, and an easy swing, unhurried at any tempo, that always seems fitting. These records and all the others under Hodges’s name should have been mere curiosities in the career of Johnny Hodges, a man temperamentally unsuited for leading a band. But of course he was equally unsuited for following a bandleader, and yet he managed his sideman chores with something close to artistic perfection. No matter how hard you listen, the paradoxes do not go away.



Balliett, Whitney. Dinosaurs in the Morning (Lippincott, 1962). p. 124.

Ellington, Edward Kennedy. Music is My Mistress (Doubleday, 1973), pp. 117-18; p. 238.

Ellington, Mercer, with Stanley Dance. Duke Ellington in Person: An Intimate Memoir (Houghton Mifflin, 1978), pp. 105-06.

George, Don. Sweet Man: The Real Duke Ellington ((Putnam’s Sons, 1981), p. 40.

Goldberg, Joe. Liner note for Al Sears, Swing’s the Thing. Prestige Swingsville. (OJCCD 838, 1994 [originally 1961]).

Jewell, Derek. Duke: A Portrait of Duke Ellington (Norton, 1977), p. 115; p. 141.

Oakley, Helen. Liner note for Hodge Podge: Johnny Hodges and His Orchestra. (Columbia Masterworks 66972, 1995 [originally 1968]).