The Last Days of Johnny Hodges

On April 25, 1970, the Duke Ellington band performed a partial version of New Orleans Suite at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where it was well-received.  Promoter George Wein was moved; “It gave me a chill,” he said.  “That was Duke at his greatest.”  The performance included only five movements; four others–including a star turn for Johnny Hodges on soprano sax, “Portrait of Sidney Bechet”were still being written, and Ellington began in earnest to complete them.

                 Johnny Hodges

Three decades had passed since Hodges had last played the soprano, his first musical love, on a recording date; the tune was “That’s the Blues Old Man,” a number he composed.  Hodges had stopped playing soprano, according to Rex Stewart, when he had asked Duke for extra pay to play a second instrument.  Hodges was within his rights to do so, as the By-Laws of the New York musicians union provided that (with few exceptions) a musician who played two instruments was entitled to double pay.  As Stewart put it, “request denied, and that golden tone exited from Ellington’s band forever.”

Hodges kept the soprano sax Bechet had given him long before, but he used it so little he would say he was “about ready to make a lamp out of it.”  Every now and then he would idly suggest that he was going to take up the instrument again, but he would always renege.  Harry Carney interpreted this demurral to mean that “Johnny wouldn’t have any trouble playing it, but . . . he isn’t going to play it in public unless he can play up to the level he sets himself.”  Ellington had been thinking about how he might “persuade [Hodges] to get his soprano out once more” for the Bechet portrait; he asked his son Mercer to talk to Hodges to see if he would relent, and Hodges replied “It will cost him.”  When Mercer relayed Hodges’ response to his father, Duke said “Pay him what he wants.”


              Sidney Bechet

Hodges had not been in good health; he came down with swollen glands on the band’s September, 1968, tour of South America, missing several performances, and in April, 1969, he suffered a heart seizure and had to leave the band for two months.  A British jazz writer, interviewing Hodges during a European tour in November of that year, noted that he had opted out of ensemble playing and confined himself to solos.  He began to skip dates that didn’t appeal to him, such as a sacred music concert scheduled for December in Detroit, just one night after flying back from England.  “The band’s playing at a church next Monday,” Hodges said, “but I ain’t going.”

He had been, by his own account, lucky all his life and his good fortune had carried over to the natural shocks the flesh is heir to.  According to Mercer Ellington, Hodges had three times happened “to be near the best possible hospital” when he had heart attacks. In the case of the April, 1969 incident, he was stricken on a flight following a three-night stand at the Atkinson Hotel in Indianapolis while sitting next to an oxygen tank; there was a doctor on board, and he was rushed to a hospital as soon as the plane landed.  Norris Turney and Gregory Herbert subbed for him on alto during a period of almost two months.

On May 11, 1970, however, his luck ran out.  At the end of a long stretch of touring, both domestic and international, his strength may have been at an ebb. He was in his dentist’s office in Manhattan, got up from the chair to go to the bathroom partway through a procedure, took a few steps—and collapsed.  He did not recover, and was pronounced dead at Harlem Hospital at 4:30 p.m. that day.  “I sent him to the dentist,” his widow said, “and the Lord brought him back.”

His Certificate of Death gave his name simply (and incorrectly) as “John Hodges” (the name on his birth certificate was “Cornelius,” “Johnny” was a nickname.) The cause of death listed was hypertensive cardiovascular disease—elevated blood pressure resulting in heart failure—due to cardiac hypertrophy, a thickening of the heart muscle that decreases the size of the chambers of the heart.  That organ, which we consider the seat of the emotions, had toughened on the outside just as Hodges himself had maintained his steely exterior throughout his career, while at the same time a warm core burned within it—and him.  He had poured his heart into song for four decades with Ellington, and it had finally given out on him.

Funeral arrangements were made by Russell Procope, Hodges’ colleague in the reed section.  Ellington avoided funerals, as he did any intimation of mortality, but he attended Hodges’ ceremony and comforted Hodges’ mother, the “Good Queen Bess” referred to in his genial song, who kissed her son for the last time as he lay in his casket.  “He was a good son to me,” she said to Stanley Dance, who reported that she “then turned away, upright, composed, dry-eyed.”  The death of her only son must have affected her more deeply than she revealed at the time; she survived him by only a few months.  “She got sick and lost the desire to live,” her granddaughter Lorna Hodges Mafata said.

The ceremony was arranged by Procope at the Harlem Masonic temple of which both men were members, thereby avoiding affected religious sentiment that Hodges would have scoffed at.  Ellington eulogized Hodges thusly:

Edith “Cue” Hodges, Johnny’s widow, at his funeral with Russell Procope.

 

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. This is Johnny Hodges.

Because of this great loss, our band will never sound the same.

            From “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” Oxford University Press, by Con Chapman.

This One’s for Blanton

In an old joke a woman complains to her psychiatrist that her husband is uncommunicative.

“He never talks to me!” she exclaims.

“Take him to a jazz club,” the shrink says.

“What good will that do?” the woman asks.

“Everybody talks during the bass solo.”

And so it goes for the guys who provide the bottom, the foundation from which jazz is built upwards.  They labor in obscurity, less heard than felt until everybody else takes a break, which the audience takes as a sign that nothing important is going on.

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Jimmie Blanton and Johnny Hodges

In many cases this is true; there are journeymen of the instrument who are mere timekeepers–literally; they also serve who merely stand and pluck, as John Milton might have said if he’d lived into the jazz age.  And until 1939 that was true generally, until Duke Ellington heard a young man named Jimmie Blanton playing with Fate Marable’s band at an after-hours joint known as “Club 49” in St. Louis.

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Fate Marable’s Society Syncopaters, playing on a river boat.

 

Ellington’s ear for prospective sidemen was keen; Blanton was unknown, and Ellington already had one and sometimes two bassists in his ensemble.  Blanton was different, however; he was academically trained, with two years of college at Tennessee State University behind him, and he had developed a pizzicato technique that had never been heard in jazz before.

Duke asked if he could sit in, and Marable–an old friend–said sure.  Without saying a word to Blanton, Ellington began to improvise and modulate through different keys.  Blanton didn’t miss a note, and when the two were done Marable–who had served as musical father to Louis Armstrong, among other jazz notables–said of the 18-year-old “How do you like my bass player?”  To which Ellington replied “He’s my bass player now.”

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Fate Marable

 

Blanton had limited big band experience, but Ellington didn’t care.  “We wanted . . . that sound, that beat, and those precision notes in the right places,” he wrote in Music is My Mistress.  Ellington talked Blanton into joining the band for a few numbers the next night, and would later write he “was a sensation, and that settled it.  We had to have him. . . although our bass man at the time was Billy Taylor, one of the ace foundation-and-beat men.”

Ellington’s offer of employment was accepted–the Duke paid royal family wages thanks to his broader media reach that exceeded what a regional bandleader such as Marable could offer.  So Ellington had two basses until one night in Boston when, in the middle of a gig, Taylor packed up his instrument, saying “I’m not going to stand up here next to that young boy playing all that bass and be embarrassed.”  There followed a burst of inspired creativity on the part of Ellington’s band that Blanton–a bassist, of all things–is generally credited with touching off.


Blanton and Hodges

 

Blanton, unlike the run-of-the-mill bassist, created solos that people sat silent to listen to and which Ellington, as was his style, wove into the fabric of his compositions instead of leaving them at the fringe.  Blanton’s work on Ko Ko, Jack the Bear and, most memorably to these ears, Pitter Panther Patter, was both useful and ornamental; it laid down the rhythm, but it was never satisfied with that utilitarian function.   He created melodies of his own, in some cases inspiring the Duke to go chasing after him, like two kids at play.

Blanton was a frail, other-worldly creature, thin and scholarly in appearance.  In one anecdote whose accuracy no one has questioned, one night on the road a woman called Blanton’s hotel room to suggest she might come up and see him if he wasn’t busy.  Blanton replied “Just a minute, I’ve got to finish what I’m doing,” then returned to his practice and forgot there was a woman waiting on the line.  She eventually gave up, and hung up.  As it turned out, Blanton’s fey disposition had a physical cause; he suffered from congenital tuberculosis, and was forced to leave the Ellington band only two years after joining it.

Ellington and bassist Ray Brown recorded a fine tribute to Blanton in 1973, This One’s for Blanton, which was reissued by the Musical Heritage Society in 1992.  It’s good, and Ray Brown had few equals among bassists of his generation–but it’s not the real thing.

Blanton was born October 5, 1918, in Chattanooga, Tennessee (not St. Louis, as is sometimes reported), and died in 1942 in Monravia, California, leaving a legacy you can hear in every bass solo played today–if everyone would just be quiet and listen.

Con Chapman is the author of “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges” (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award by Hot Club de France.

Billy Strayhorn: A Short, Gay and Lush Life of Beauty

In December of 1938 a short, bespectacled young man of twenty-three persuaded a friend of a friend to arrange for him to meet Duke Ellington, the jazz pianist and composer whose orchestra was in Pittsburgh for a performance.  After hearing the young man–Billy Strayhorn–play a few songs on the piano, Ellington offered him an undefined job on indefinite terms.  “I don’t have any position for you,” Ellington said.  “You’ll do whatever you feel like doing.”

Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington

 

With no more assurance than that–no written contract or verbal agreement as to pay–Strayhorn moved to New York and joined Ellington as arranger, composer, sometimes pinch-hit pianist and songwriting partner.  Their relationship would continue for nearly three decades, an extended improvisation much like those they collaborated on.

Strayhorn was a piano prodigy who worked odd jobs while still in grade school to buy a used upright piano.  His first love was classical music, but a combination of circumstances–there were few obvious ports of entry to European art music for a young black man in the thirties–and exposure to jazz pianists such as Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum persuaded him to put his skills to work in that vernacular idiom.


Joe Henderson: Lush Life, the Music of Billy Strayhorn

 

As far as I can tell, there are no memorials to Strayhorn in Pittsburgh, where he grew up, or in Dayton, Ohio, where he was born, but the case can be made that he is in a class of his own among American composers; his work is classical, and yet people listen to it with enjoyment, not to be improved, instructed or edified as is so often the case with modern classical music.  You may know that Strayhorn wrote Ellington’s theme song–Take the A Train–but you have probably heard other songs, such as A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, After All and Lotus Blossom–without knowing they were his.

At his first meeting with Ellington Strayhorn probably played a tune that he then called “Life is Lonely,” but which we now know as “Lush Life.”  The song has been interpreted by hundreds of jazz singers (and butchered by more than a few), and it provides some perspective on the man whose characteristic mode was the lament; sad, poignant melodies over rich chord changes interpreted best by those masters of blue moods, Johnny Hodges on alto and Ben Webster on tenor.  Strayhorn began composing Lush Life when he was eighteen and finished it when he was twenty-one, and yet it tells a fatalistic, bitter tale of alcohol and fading youth that would seem more appropriate coming from a man four decades older.

Strayhorn was gay, and perhaps he saw that aspect of his being closing off many doors to him, just as his skin color effectively barred him from prizes and fellowships that might have fallen his way if he’d been a white classical composer.  Throughout his life he drank too much for his own good, and he may have already realized at a relatively young age that alcohol would be a satisfying but embittering companion as he grew older.  He describes the life of a lush with music that is also lush, in the other sense of the word; rich.  What he may have seen as he looked ahead was a life that was limited by his race, sexual preference and the bottle, but full of possibilities nonetheless.  As Dorothy Parker put it with resignation, you might as well live.

Strayhorn’s lifelong smoking and drinking probably contributed to the esophageal cancer from which he died on May 31, 1967, in the company of his partner, Bill Grove.  As he lay dying in the hospital he submitted his final composition–Blood Count–to Ellington, which can be found on Ellington’s memorial album for Strayhorn …And His Mother Called Him Bill. The song is, like Strayhorn’s life, a brief thing that reaches its own melancholy resolution, but leaves you wanting more.