There was a time when alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges was one of the top three jazz-men on his instrument in the world – and it came at a time when jazz ruled American music. That, of course, made Hodges one of the hottest commodities blowing on the circuit when he stood up next to Duke Ellington each night – playing with the legendary bandleader for year upon years.
However, despite having grown up in the South End, there’s not one monument to his legacy in the neighborhood – let alone in the entire city.
He is, however, represented in one place – the Harriet Tubman House mural on Columbus Avenue – and that likeness of Boston’s home-grown jazz great is about ready to come down.
Author Con Chapman was one of the first to re-identify Hodges on the mural not long ago, and that came in the midst of him researching a book on the jazz legend. That book, ‘The Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,’ will be published this month by Oxford University Press and present more than seven years of research on the Southender who could play like no other.
“I had always wondered why there was no memorial or anything dedicated to Johnny in Boston,” said Chapman, who writes on the side and is a lawyer by day. “It was funny because I have driven by the Harriet Tubman House hundreds of times. But I was out doing a little research to find Johnny’s house in the South End. I kept finding discrepancies in Hodge’s life, and I always felt he had been one of the most important sax players in the history of jazz, but there was no central account of his life…He had played with Duke Ellington a long, long time. That day, I was thinking about why no one had identified the house or why there hadn’t been any memorial to him. So, I was walking down to Hammond Street to find his house and on my way back, I walked by the Harriet Tubman House. I happened to turn and staring back at me was Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. I couldn’t believe it. It was so serendipitous because I was working on this book at that moment.”
While he said he had no sentimental attachment to the mural – which is scheduled to be demolished, though possibly replace elsewhere – though he said it would be the loss of the only visual memorial to Hodges.
“People have said there should be a monument to Johnny Hodges in Boston…and this one is pretty much it,” he said. “I heard it might be lost…When I passed by, for once, I had my phone with me and I took some pictures of the Hodges mural. I included it in my book as well. It tells an interesting story because even as famous as he was, there is no monument to him except on the Tubman House. His story is about a fall from prominence mostly because his music became unfashionable.”
According to Chapman, Hodges got his start in Boston and Cambridge – growing up mostly in the South End and starting his career playing in burlesque houses in Scollay Square. Hodges caught on with the world-famous Duke Ellington Orchestra in the 1940s and 1950s and was known for his style of ‘Sweet Blues’ or ‘Jump Blues.’ He soon became the most popular soloist in Ellington’s famous orchestra, and so much so that Chapman said he often shared billing with Ellington.
He also was known for having influenced John Coltrane, giving the famous jazz-man his first big break before he made it big.
electrified by Hodges, he said, from one of the first times he heard his music
– that being as a young man listening to records. He said the song ‘Wabash
Blues’ turned him onto Hodges, and essentially was the beginning of his journey
to write the book.
“There’s a drum riff and then Hodges comes in with this slow, wailing sax,” he said. “Everybody has their epiphany if they’re a jazz fan. That was it for me. I collected all the records Hodges was on, and that’s where I began to find the discrepancies in his life story.”
And so for more than seven years, Chapman collected information on Hodges – retrieving his birth certificate, talking to his contemporaries, and even making visits the places he called home.
Which is what brought him to the Tubman House on that day when he saw the subject of his book staring him in the face. Now, with that likeness getting ready to leave that prominent corner, Chapman said he hopes his book can inspire the city and its residents to remember Hodges in some official and respectful way.
“I think it would be great for Boston,” he said. “We named a tunnel after Ted Williams, who was basically a cranky old guy who hated reporters but had a batting average of .400. So, he got a tunnel…On the other hand, memorials and statues are kind of a way for a city to choose what’s important. I would hope that they would choose to give Johnny that kind of importance in his hometown.”