Rabbit’s Blues: The Life And Music Of Johnny Hodges: The Coming of Bird


Saxophonist Johnny Hodges came to prominence as one of Duke Ellington‘s most notable and beloved player. Hodges joined the orchestra in 1928 and stayed with him throughout the majority of his career. Con Chapmans new biography, Rabbit’s Blues: The Life And Music Of Johnny Hodges, is the first in-depth look into the beloved sax man’s career. The following excerpt documents the changing sound of jazz music, with the arrival of a rather polarizing but undeniable new talent, Charlie “Bird” Parker.

Rabbit’s Blues can be purchased here: Oxford University Press


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In the October 1, 1944 issue of DownBeat a reviewer gave readers his impression of singer Billy Eckstine’s new band, which included several former members of the Earl Hines orchestra, including trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and an alto saxophonist named Charlie Parker. “Driving force behind the reeds is Charlie Parker, destined to take his place behind Hodges as a stylist on alto sax” (author’s emphasis).  It is difficult in retrospect to imagine that Johnny Hodges was once ranked ahead of Charlie Parker—now considered the greatest jazz practitioner of the alto ever–but Hodges had won the DownBeat Readers Poll for alto saxophonists every year since 1940, and he would go on to win the poll five more times (ten consecutive, in total) before the tastes of that magazine’s readers caught up to Parker’s new musical syntax and elevated him to first place.

Parker was known as “Yardbird” because of his fondness for chicken, referred to colloquially as “yardbirds” in areas where they are raised for food in poor folks’ yards.  That moniker was shortened over time to “Bird,” which proved more durable because it suggested the stratospheric heights of invention that Parker flew to, far beyond the previously-known limits of his instrument.  As Ralph Ellison wrote, “Parker was a most inventive melodist, in bird-watcher’s terminology, a true songster.”

While still in his teens Parker moved from Kansas City, Kansas to Kansas City, Missouri, where he found a place to live near Vine Street, a center of night life under the corrupt administration of Mayor Tom Pendergast.  The nightclubs there never closed; entertainment was needed for the patrons, and an independent strain of regional jazz developed, a cross-pollination of music that made its way up two rivers from New Orleans, and the sounds heard by radio from New York.  It was a tough school for a young man to learn in; one night in 1936 when Parker joined a jam session and didn’t perform to the exacting standards of the other musicians (including members of Count Basie’s band), drummer Jo Jones sent a cymbal flying across the dance floor to register his low opinion of Parker’s style. Harder metal is formed in hotter crucibles, however, and Parker was determined to prove himself.

On Thanksgiving Day, 1936, Parker traveled to the Lake of the Ozarks, a resort area southeast of Kansas City for a gig.  As the car he was traveling in neared Musser’s Ozark Tavern, the site of the job, it hit a wet patch and skidded off the road, rolling over several times. Three of Parker’s ribs were broken, and his spine was fractured.  Parker used the time of idleness during his recovery to “woodshed” and improve his technique.  He began to practice constantly, and when he returned to Kansas City the next autumn, “the difference was unbelievable” according to bassist Gene Ramey.  ‘Here comes this guy,’ the cats used to say. ‘He’s a drag.’  They couldn’t believe it, because six months before he had been like a cryin’ saxophone player.”

Parker’s transformation into the protean improviser he became wasn’t complete until he moved to New York in 1939 and was exposed to musicians who were pushing jazz’s harmonic boundaries.  One was Tadd Dameron, the inventive pianist and arranger whom Parker may have first encountered when both were associated with Harlan Leonard and the Rockets, a Kansas City band. According to Dameron’s account, Parker was cleaning up a club during the lean years when he couldn’t find work as a musician, and he joined an after-hours jam session.  Dameron said “I could hear his message. . . [W]e were playing “Lady Be Good”and there’s some changes I played in the middle where he just stopped playing and ran over and kissed me on the cheek.  He said ‘That’s what I’ve been hearing all my life, but nobody plays those changes.’”

Another influence on Bird’s thinking was William “Biddy” Fleet, a journeyman guitarist whose career extended back to Jelly Roll Morton. Bird had tired of the standard chord changes of the swing era, and was looking for new models.  “I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else,” he said in a 1949 DownBeat interview.  “I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.” Fleet showed Parker new jazz progressions, and one night while playing “Cherokee” Parker realized he could achieve the effect he had been searching for by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody and running those notes through changes.  In Bird’s words, he “came alive” with the realization, and bebop was born.

The birth of one style in an art form generally means the death of another, but only after a long period of decline such as that which passed before Parker dethroned Hodges.  Parker slowly came to the attention of other musicians, but “they couldn’t figure what Bird was doing, because they had their minds set on Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter,” according to Fleet.  “These was (sic) the top alto men. . . .[T]hey were playing the right horn.  They were playing right changes and doing a beautiful job at it.  What Bird did, Bird played the right changes and, where they would go from one chord to another, Bird played that in-between.  And that made his playing sound different.” Parker’s innovations went beyond the harmonic to rhythmic attack.  “When bop first came out it was very amazing to all of us,” said bassist Chubby Jackson. “We were used to the milky alto saxophones of Benny Carter, Willie Smith, and Johnny Hodges and more melodic-type of passages.  Then the staccato concept came through with Dizzy and Bird, and at first it was a little raucous.  It was cooking, but it was so strange.” The transition in fashion from mellifluous to manic in turn upset the prevailing conventions by which an altoist’s tone was judged.

At first, Hodges is said to have disapproved of Parker’s style, as a member of the old guard in any trade might react to an innovative newcomer with a disruptive approach.  Ben Webster, as devoted an acolyte of Hodges as anyone, took Parker into one of his groups over Hodges’ protests.  “Nobody wanted to let him play with us, not even Ellington,” Webster reportedly said. “But I saw how talented he was right from the start.” On first hearing Parker, Webster was shocked at his facility at high speeds: “That was quite a thrill.  The guy scared me to death,” he said. But Webster also sounded a cautionary note: “This kid will mess up a gang, a real big gang of saxophone players,” he said.  “He won’t disturb me, because I’m only trying to play the little that I know how to play, but you watch!  He will really destroy a lot of saxophone players!”

Similarly, Hodges–like the tree standing by the water in the old spiritual–was unmoved by the new wind that blew in from Kansas City; he had great respect for Parker, but he refused to change in response to the bop revolution.  “A lot of ‘em tried to jump on the Charlie Parker bandwagon—but there was only one,” Hodges said later.  “I don’t think you get any credit for trying to copy somebody’s style.”  Instead, Hodges stuck with the tone and phrasing that were uniquely his.  “I’ve just seemed to stay at one particular style for a good many years—and haven’t changed,” he said in 1964.  “Other people probably went along with this style and came back.  But I still stayed where I was.  That’s where I’m at.  I’m still here.  Too late for me to change now.”

Parker ultimately expressed regret that he had sacrificed tone and phrasing to speed.  In an anecdote recounted by Michael Segell, Parker rented a studio near one occupied by Jimmy Abato, a saxophonist who had played with Claude Thornhill, among others.  Abato gave lessons, and Parker would sometimes stop practicing when he heard Abato talk to a student about “intonation, the blend of colors in your sound, control.” Abato’s mantra was “The sound of a saxophone is all about control.”  One day Abato heard a knock and it was Parker, asking if he could sit in on a lesson. After it was over, the two went to a bar where, according to Abato, Parker

started to cry, tears running out of his eyes. He says, “You know, I must have hurt a lot of young saxophone players.”  I say, “What are you talking about, you’re the god of this thing.”  He says, “No, I never liked the way I sounded, and I’m sure kids all over who listen to my recordings think this is the way the saxophone should sound.”  He liked what he was doing, but didn’t like his sound, and he felt like he’d badly influenced a whole generation of saxophone players.


Ralph Ellison described Parker’s tone as “vibratoless,” and thought that Bird and his imitators made a virtue out of necessity; that their thinner sounds—with timbres that were “flat or shrill”–reflected “amateurish ineffectuality,” as though they were incapable of creating the full-bodied notes of Hodges and others who preceded them. This judgment is too harsh; the beboppers couldhave created the sounds that came before them, but they didn’t want to.  The damage to the existing order had been done, however, and a strange new beauty, as Mallarmé said of Degas, had been born.

The sound of Hodges’ alto—unlike Parker’s–had a broad appeal, according to Jimmy Heath, who emulated Hodges and Benny Carter before he heard Parker, then switched his allegiance.  Hodges “had the kind of sound that was beyond the instrument,” he said.  “It sang.  It was so personal and so beautiful that people just liked his sound and its special quality.  The mass audience wouldn’t appreciate Charlie Parker like they did Hodges,” Heath claimed; in his view Hodges

could have gone to any country town in the South and played the saxophone and people would have liked it better than what Parker was doing, which was very fast and modern.  Hodges’s sound is the sound of music.  It was a beautiful, pleasant sound, no unnecessary tricks, no sophisticated chord sequences.”

Hodges would eventually grow tired of comparisons with Parker.  On a 1964 date in Liverpool, England, he complained that nobody ever talked to him about anything except Charlie Parker and Sidney Bechet.

The changing of the alto guard from Hodges to Parker represented a transition in jazz from a music in which intellect was subordinate to emotion, to one that reversed that order; where before jazz was primarily a music to dance or at least to move one’s body rhythmically to, it now became a music to be listened to—thoughtfully.  While even the most ardent of Hodges’ fans would rank him below Parker by some absolute standards—primarily, the two players’ relative virtuosity and improvisational creativity—these are not the only dimensions of assessment.  As Ezra Pound put it, “music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance,” and on this point Pound had a bebop counterpart; Dizzy Gillespie, who said “Jazz should be danceable.  That’s the original idea, and even when it’s too fast . . . it should always be rhythmic enough to make you wanna move.  When you get away from that movement, you get away from the whole idea.”

The Ellington orchestra had played a central role in American social dance, as a reviewer noted in covering a 1942 date in Chicago: “Dance music, dance styles, dance bands have all risen through some form of exploitation of Duke’s ideas. . .Always a leader, the Duke is dance music, jazz, and swing. . . .His is a music of cultured restraint where dance music, per se, is concerned.” It was nonetheless the case that Ellington’s band created jazz sufficiently sophisticated to cause audiences to sit rather than get up and dance.  “Of all our band leaders he best succeeds in making jazz seem an end in itself and not merely an invitation to dance,” wrote Howard Barnes in The New York Herald Tribunein 1930.  In January of 1934, following a performance at the Palace Theatre in Akron, Ohio, a reviewer wrote “More than any of the colored shows that have been on local stages in recent weeks, Ellington’s places the burden of entertainment upon music.  And surprisingly he has turned his band away from the swift syncopations of the radio to a concert style that is as much more entertaining as it is radically different.”  In July, 1937, the Ellington orchestra moved a critic in attendance at a concert in New York to say that the band was “distinguished from all other Negro outfits in that it sells itself with music rather than roof-raising noise and clownish antics.”

There were at least two explanations for the Ellington orchestra’s production of music to be listened to, rather than danced to: First was Ellington’s own artistic ambition, which was of the highest order; he continually sparred with critic John Hammond, who thought his more complex works an abandonment of the music of his people, and while his symphonic works may sometimes strike the ear as pastiches that don’t constitute a coherent artistic whole, they were important forms of self-justification for him.  Second was the complex nature of the Ellington book, which was composed, like a coral reef, of musical elements of varying intensity over time.  The band’s shows at the Cotton Club were part minstrelsy, part dance revue, and part hot dance music for patrons, but during the first set, in the early hours of a typical performance, their fare was low-volume tafelmusik (a German word meaning “table music”),comparable in an American vernacular to that composed by Telemann, to be listened to while dining; Ellington’s Washington, D.C. prime-contractor-cum-manager Louis Thomas referred to it as “under-conversation music.” Hodges once explained this practice from his perspective in the reed section: “Like when we play dances or something. . . Sometimes in places like small clubs we’re supposed to play real soft for the first hour,” he told an interviewer in 1964. “If I have to do that it doesn’t bother me at all.” Ellington thus developed early on a repertoire of music that was not intended to be danced to, and he demanded a listener’s level of attention until the end of his composing days.

The connection between jazz and dance may strike a current fan of either art form as curious, but it was once common.  The enjoyment of jazz was not always the intellectual exercise it is today, when it is either performed to seated audiences or absorbed privately in a stationary state.  For most of its history, jazz was the music that accompanied American social dance; Ellington’s band played dances throughout his career, the last just two months before his death in May, 1974,  and he incorporated dancers into his act from the earliest days at The Cotton Club to the Sacred Concerts near the end of his life, when he used Bunny Briggs to depict the theme of “David Danced Before the Lord With All His Might.” When Hodges went out on his own he played dances as well, as evidenced by a picture of his group, with Al Sears soloing, before a group of ecstatic dancing college students during Hodges’ sabbatical from Ellington. Many songs from the Ellington book that have come to be considered jazz classics—“Caravan,” “Cotton Tail,” “Harlem Air-Shaft,” “Mood Indigo,” and “Ko-Ko,”to name just a few—were labeled “Fox Trots” when issued on records, and thus were intended as music to be danced to.

Despite his symphonic aspirations, Ellington “loved the excitement of clubs and dance halls, and around this time, when jitterbugging to jazz rather than shaking to rock ‘n’ roll was what the young did, the frenzy at dances he played was often intense,” according to Derek Jewell.  Some fans objected to Ellington’s danceable numbers, the converse of critic John Hammond who criticized Ellington when his music started to develop away from popular dance rhythms into longer, orchestral forms.  Of those high-browed fans who didn’t want their listening experience to be sullied by the innocent joy of dancing, Duke cracked “If they’d been told it was a Balkan folk dance, they’d think it was wonderful.” In 1971, towards the end of his life, Ellington was asked whether jazz was music for dancing. “To ask whether jazz is music for dancing is to introduce a category or classification I resist,” said the man who resisted categories throughout his life, “but I would say that our music is intended to inspire or sustain dancing.” Ellington harmonized the two different ends to which his music, which he referred to as the “music of our race,” was put thusly: “[W]hat we know as ‘jazz’ is something more than dance music. When we dance it is not mere diversion or social accomplishment.  It expresses our personality, and right down in us our souls react to the elemental but eternal rhythm.”

The knock against bebop by those who enjoyed dancing to swing, the jazz style that came just before it, was that you couldn’t dance to bop.  “They couldn’t dance to the music, they said,” Gillespie recalled, “but I could dance my ass off to it.  They could have, too, if they had tried.”Others disagreed; when Ralph Ellison was asked to describe the reaction of New Yorkers to bebop, he said it “was mixed because most people couldn’t dance to bop.  Few people were capable of dancing to it; it was more of a listener’s music.”Gillespie, conscious of his obligations as an entertainer, would dance solo after a fashion when playing with his big band, but according to Ellison, when he played in a small group setting with Parker they “often were so engrossed with their experiments that they didn’t provide enough music for the supportive rite of dancing.”

Another force that hastened jazz’s transformation from dance music to a listener’s genre was the federal “cabaret tax” imposed in 1944 on all receipts of “any venue that served food and drink and allowed dancing.”  Originally imposed at the rate of 30%, later reduced to 20%, it was thought that the tax would hit only upscale nightspots, but as interpreted by the federal taxing authority it was applied to “any room in any hotel, restaurant, hall or other public place where music or dancing privileges or any other entertainment, except instrumental or mechanical music alone,” was provided along with food or beverages. Thus, bar, hotel and restaurant owners had a financial incentive to prohibit dancing, and conversely to book only instrumental music.

And so the beboppers arrived on the scene.  “The spotlight was on instrumentalists because of the prohibitive entertainment taxes,” said drummer Max Roach, and the dancers headed for the exits. The art form had changed—matured in one sense, lost its innocence in another–and an intellectual aesthetic replaced an emotional one.  Unlike the music of its African roots, bebop didn’t require communal participation beyond the nod of a head, the snap of a finger, or an occasional shout of appreciation—and it lost a large part of its audience as a result. Upon leaving Parker’s quintet in 1951, trumpeter Red Rodney formed his own group and his manager got on the phone to find him work.  On a call to the owner of a Boston area club, his manager started his spiel by saying “I got this terrific bebop band for you. . .”

The line went dead.


From Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges by Con Chapman. Copyright © 2019 by Con Chapman and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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