May 14, 1951: A Homecoming for Johnny Hodges

The Johnny Hodges All-Stars opened for a week at Storyville on May 14, 1951, and it was a big step forward for both the star and the club.

Saxophonist Johnny Hodges, born in Cambridge, raised in Boston’s South End, inspired by Bechet, and a member of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra since early 1928, finally decided to go out on his own in early 1951. After 23 years with Ellington, he figured it was time, a move encouraged by the impresario Norman Granz.

Photo of Johnny Hodges

He wasn’t always an Ellingtonian: Johnny Hodges

The Boston date at Storyville was one of the first outside of New York for the All-Stars, a group formed shortly after Hodges declared his independence. In the band were the Count Basie veteran, trumpeter Emmett Berry, and five others with ties to the Ellington. Trombonist Lawrence Brown and drummer Sonny Greer left Ellington with Hodges. Tenor saxophonist Al Sears and bassist Lloyd Trotman (we’ll meet this Bostonian again next week) had played with Ellington in the 1940s. Finally, pianist Billy Strayhorn was still Ellington’s closest musical collaborator.

Strayhorn, who might have been in Boston for Ellington, wasn’t the band’s regular pianist. That was Leroy Lovett, the pianist on the “Castle Rock” session in March. “Castle Rock” was a step in a different direction for Hodges, away from his Ellington past, but a puzzling choice in that he didn’t solo on it.

The Hodges engagement marked a step in a different direction for Storyville, too. The club was about to close out its first year in business, a year in which its Dixieland schedule had been indistinguishable from that of the Savoy, with Bob Wilber, Johnny Windhurst, Wild Bill Davison, and Marion McPartland featured. The Hodges All-Stars broke that pattern, and showed George Wein acting on his plan to present the best in jazz regardless of genre at Storyville.

The Hodges All-Stars lasted until late 1954. Hodges wasn’t cut out to be a bandleader, and the broader commercial success envisioned by Granz did not materialize. Hodges rejoined Ellington in 1955 and remained until his death in 1970.

“Castle Rock” was a hit for Hodges although he didn’t have much to do with it. It’s mostly a vehicle for its composer, Al Sears.

If ”Castle Rock” doesn’t have enough Hodges for you, this should: a pair of solos, on “Sunny Side of the Street” and “I Got It Bad,” with an Ellington small group.