Thanks to Michael Cuscuna and Mosaic Records for the reminder that yesterday, Johnny Hodges (1906-1970) would have celebrated his 109th birthday. Hodges’ alto saxophone (and in his early career the soprano sax) were so closely associated with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, it is easy to assume that’s where he started. In fact, he left his native Boston in 1924 and worked regularly in New York with his mentor Sidney Bechet, Willie “The Lion” Smith, Lloyd Scott, Chick Webb and Luckey Robertsamong othersbefore he joined Ellington in the spring of 1928. He became one of the band’s principal soloists and remained so the rest of his life except for four years in the 1950s when he led his own band before he returned to Ellington.
In 1936, the Ellington band recorded one of the composer’s loveliest and least known ballads, “Black Butterfly,” with solos by baritone saxophonist Harry Carney and trombonist Lawrence Brown. The song resurfaced in the late 1960s with Hodges as the featured soloist. Let’s listen to the originally issued take of “Black Butterfly,” then watch the video of Hodges and the Ellington band playing it in Berlin in 1969, the year before Hodges’ death.
“Black Butterfly” is included in this essential Mosaic collection of Ellington’s Brunswick and Columbia recordings from the 1930s.