A Sax is Born: Johnny Hodges’ Early Years

On July 25, 1907, a boy named “Cornelius” was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to John H. and Katie Swan Hodges.  His last name was given as “Hodges”—not “Hodge” as some have claimed.


Johnny Hodges’ birthplace, 137 Putnam Avenue, Cambridge, Mass.

 

There are several reasons for the uncertainty as to the spelling of the boy’s last name: the father’s name appears as “John H. Hodge” in the City of Boston’s record of the couple’s 1896 marriage, and as an adult the son displayed a curious indifference to this vital statistic.  He reportedly owned a rubber stamp of the name spelled “Hodge” with which he marked his luggage, and records of American Federation of Musicians Local 802, the union that he was a member of in New York City, give the spelling as “Hodge” from 1928, when he first joined, until 1948, when it is corrected to “Hodges.”


1945 publicity photo of Hodges.

 

Most sources suggest that Cornelius Hodges had only one sister, but U.S. and Massachusetts official records confirm that John and Katie Hodges had three daughters.  The first was born February 24, 1897, also in Cambridge, and left unnamed at the time her birth was recorded, as was frequently the case in those days; she was subsequently named Claretta.  The second was born July 1, 1899, at the Boston Lying-In Hospital.  The girl was again unnamed when the record of her birth was made, but would be called Daisy B.  The third daughter was born May 18, 1902, in Cambridge, and was named Cynolia.  She would go by a name other than that which appeared on her birth certificate—Josephine.

As would her little brother.  The name “Cornelius” was soon dropped and by the time of the 1910 U.S. Census, when he was three, his family had reconsidered their christening choice; he is listed then as “John C. Hodges,” and “Johnny” is the name by which the world at large would know him.  The name “Cornelius” had peaked in popularity among Americans in the 1880s; it was often given in talismanic tribute to business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt (1794-1877), but it was a playground burden to boys whose parents hoped his Midas-like touch would pass to their sons.  (The author, whose full name is Cornelius John Chapman, speaks from experience).


David Stone Martin cover of a Hodges EP.

 

Nicknames, unlike given names, are applied by one’s family and friends–or enemies–after our features, characters and personalities have developed a bit, and not at the baptismal fount.  As Herman Mellville put it in Bartleby, the Scrivener, nicknames imply “cherished disrespect and dislike” “under the form of merriment,” and are thus typically given (in the case of those we like) if we want to kid them a little.  Johnny Hodges went by seven in all, the most enduring being “Rabbit,” and several grounds for it have been proposed:  First, that Hodges was fast afoot, able to escape truant officers who pursued the errant student through the streets of Boston.  This was the story Hodges himself told, perhaps because it satisfied a male ideal of athleticism and a boy’s distaste for the tedium of the classroom.  “They never could catch me.  I’d go too fast,” he said.  “That’s why I’m called ‘Rabbit.’”  The second and more likely explanation, since it comes from Harry Carney, who knew Hodges growing up and who would spend most of his professional life playing with him in Duke Ellington’s orchestra, was that Hodges looked like a rabbit when he regularly nibbled on lettuce and tomato sandwiches.

For a nickname to last, it must seem apt to successions of acquaintances who are unfamiliar with its origin, however, and in Hodges’ case there was ample justification.  According to Carney, Hodges was shy and skittish like a rabbit when it came to taking a solo, and he was known to bolt from interviews, bringing them to an abrupt conclusion.  He was small, like a rabbit.  His stage demeanor was impassive, and his face was a mask that camouflaged his emotions; as Tenor sax Johnny Griffin put it, Hodges “looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music.”


Eugene the Jeep

 

Then there was “Jeep,” as in some of his most popular numbers, “The Jeep is Jumpin’ and “Jeep’s Blues.”  Some have expressed puzzlement as to the source for this name, but those familiar with the cartoon character Popeye will recognize its antecedent in Eugene the Jeep, a friendly animal of indeterminate species who was introduced to the comic strip in 1936.  This nickname was given to him by Otto “Toby” Hardwick, a fellow alto in the Ellington band.  Eugene the Jeep is a dog-like creature who walks on his hind legs, says little (just the word “Jeep”), and has an oversize head and a large nose, all traits shared by Hodges, and thus the moniker satisfies the principal purpose of a nickname; an affectionate put-down that points out an individual’s flaws in a shorthand manner without rubbing them in too much.

There was also “Squatty Roo,” an invidious comment on Hodges’ short stature that he applied by a sort of creative jiu jitsu to a jaunty number he played with Ellington small groups.  The song is a solo vehicle for him, and he seems to use it to answer those who called him by that name for derisive reasons, as if to say that sticks and stones might break his bones, but you could stick that nickname in your ear.

Cat Anderson and Hodges on the band’s bus.

 

The boy was born in the family’s home, like two of his sisters, rather than a hospital.  At the time home birth was considered the safer alternative for several reasons, the primary one being the lower rate of infection for home versus hospital deliveries.  The house was located at 137 Putnam Avenue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a residential area known as “Cambridgeport.”  The Hodges family is listed as residents of Ward 8, Precinct 13 of Cambridge in the 1910 census, when Johnny was reported to be two years old.  In 1920 when Johnny was twelve his family moved within Cambridge to 10 Clarendon Avenue, Ward 11, part of Precinct 2, in the area known as North Cambridge, and they apparently remained there until they moved to Boston around 1922.

One aspect of the 1910 census data concerning Hodges’ family is curious; all members are listed as white.  Johnny was light-colored, his skin “like coffee with a lot of cream” according to Rex Stewart, but his birth certificate lists him as black, and his parents are both listed as black in Boston marriage records.  (Hodges’ sisters are listed as black or colored on their birth certificates.)  This error, unlike the misspelling of John H. Hodges as “Hodge” in Boston marriage records, can’t definitively be chalked up to a civil servant’s negligence or indifference.  Did Katie Swan Hodges hope that, by claiming her children were white, she would give them a chance for a better life?  In any case, all family members were later listed as “B” for black in the 1920 census.  A final thought on this curious item; if Johnny’s father self-identified as black and his mother did not, it would have been illegal for them to marry in Virginia, where they were born.  Interracial marriage was barred by statute in Virginia until the United States Supreme Court struck down state anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 in the coincidentally-named case Loving v. Virginia, so it is possible that the two moved north in order to consummate a marriage that would have been forbidden in the south.

Harry Carney, who grew with Hodges in Boston’s South End, Hodges, and Duke Ellington.

 

Jazz critic and Ellington biographer Stanley Dance, who knew Johnny’s mother, said that she was Mexican-Indian.  There is no evidence to support this claim although trumpeter Rex Stewart was one of several observers who saw characteristic traces of Native American physiognomy in Hodges’ appearance.  Hodges himself apparently repeated this tale of provenance, but he was known for his dry sense of humor, and may have been pulling Stanley Dance’s leg on this score.

The address where the family settled in Boston, 32 Hammond Street, was located in the city’s South End, like Cambridgeport a racially-mixed neighborhood.  The area was home to many young musicians, including Leonard Withers, a pianist; James “Buster” Tolliver, who played reeds; and Harry Carney, who lived, as Hodges recalled many years later, “about three blocks from me.”  As to why the Hodges family moved from Cambridge to the South End, the latter neighborhood had experienced a dramatic drop in real estate values—38.4%–in the thirty years from 1875 to 1905, shortly before their relocation there.  As a result of this downturn in the real estate values, the three-story houses that had been built to hold a single family were divided up into apartments, rooming houses (available by the week or month), or lodging houses (available by the night).  Thus, instead of becoming an urban refuge for the well-to-do, the South End became a place where housing was affordable to the masses; young clerks and office workers, laborers who had risen as far in life as they would go, and those who had begun to succumb to despair.  One single-room residence alluded to the latter problem by the sign on its door: “Friendly Lodging House for Sober Men, No Drunken Men Admitted.”  It is thus likely that the six-member Hodges family moved to the South End in part for reasons of economy.


Boston’s South End

 

There was also the matter of convenience; the South End was closer to hotels and restaurants where Johnny’s father could find employment as a waiter, and to the Back Bay railroad station, where he could work as a porter.  A 1913 study reported that a “large number of negro waiters, cooks and stewards, barbers, janitors, and porters” found rooms in the belt of territory that extended across the South End from the Back Bay Station to Tremont Street and the lower part of Shawmut Avenue—precisely where the family’s new home on Hammond Street was located.

In the decade before the Hodges family moved to the South End the neighborhood had taken an even further turn downwards; the Boston Elevated Street Railway from downtown to the South End was completed, which made it easier to commute to and from Boston but added to the grime and noise that already marred the neighborhood.  The two stations at either end of the railway became dock pilings to which the barnacles of urban life–saloons, theatres, pool halls—began to attach, and a “garish night life . . . ‘turned night into day.’”  Boston Brahmin poet Robert Lowell, who would write about the more proper neighborhoods he frequented, could open his windows in the Back Bay and “hear the South End/the razor’s edge/of Boston’s negro culture.”  The neighborhood thus came to resemble a sort of permanent fair that an impressionable young boy with an ear for music might appreciate, and the music he would hear in the South End would not be the genteel sort that he would have been exposed to in Cambridge.  “Johnny was into the big world,” his neighborhood pal Howard Johnson would say, “but I was still in the little world. . .He used to hang out nights, while I was more or less a home boy.”

With the South End’s increased density and poverty came an increase in crime; prostitutes, pimps and pickpockets walked the streets of the neighborhood, and the life of the roguish petty criminal must have appealed to a boy bored with school but forced to attend classes under the Massachusetts compulsory education law, the first in the nation.  “I think I was all set to be a crook, a mastermind crook,” Hodges would explain in later years, “until I came under the spell of music, music was too strong.”

From “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press).

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