Tuesday, May 11, 2010

`It Is Mot-Juste Improvising'

When Johnny Hodges, alto saxophonist and longtime miracle worker in the Ellington band, died forty years ago today, I had never heard of him. I knew of his boss, at least by name, but my knowledge of jazz was largely cloistered among the other big names – Armstrong, Goodman, Davis, Monk. Musically, I was preoccupied with Dylan, The Band and The Beatles, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Also, I was about to graduate from high school, and the shootings at Kent State University, sixty miles from where I lived, had occurred a week earlier. So-called big-band music and one of its great practitioners, who also excelled in small groups, had little to do with my parochial little world.

Only in college, following my autodidactic tastes as I already did with books, did I piece together a history of jazz and figure out the centrality of Ellington’s band, especially at its musical pinnacle around 1940. That was the era of Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Lawrence Brown, Jimmy Blanton – and Hodges. Terry Teachout is writing a biography of Ellington, and surely one of the most difficult parts of his job – along with demythologizing -- will be dealing equitably with so many gifted musicians clustered around him.

Hodges joined Ellington in 1928 and remained with him for the rest of his life, but for a four-year hiatus in the nineteen-fifties when he led a band of his own. His tone, like Ben Webster’s, is often sweet but he remains a romantic rooted in the blues. In 1961, Whitney Balliett writes:

“Hodges’ bent toward sweetness did not emerge until the mid-thirties, when he began recording, with Ellington, a series of slow ballad solos. On such occasions, which he still indulges in, Hodges employs a tone that seems to be draped over the notes like a lap robe. Hodges does little improvising in these ballads. Instead, he issues languorous statements of the melody and long glissandi topped by an almost unctuous vibrato. Hodges’ Edgar Guest strain is generally well concealed, though, and it is nowhere in sight when he plays the blues, which have long provided his basic materials.”

"That "Edgar Guest strain" is priceless. Elaborating on Hodges’ blues playing, Balliett adds, as though he were writing about good prose:

“There is no extraneous matter, and no thinness. There is no opacity. It is mot-juste improvising, and because of its basic understatement it illuminates completely the elegance and purity of the blues.”

Nine years later, shortly after Hodges’ death, Balliett writes in The New Yorker:

“…when Ellington called on him to solo, he would get up slowly (it seemed to take forever, though he was only about five and a half feet tall), roll like a sailor to the front of the stage, give Ellington a quick, ferocious look for having disturbed him, and start to play. And out would come one of the most lyrical and eloquent sounds of the century.”

Few man-made sounds are so lovely and reassuring. Listen for yourself: “All of Me,” “Things Ain’t What They Used to Be” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

[All Balliett quotes are drawn from Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz 1954 – 2000.]

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