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Tracks Unwrapped

Jeep's Blues


"75% of the planet is covered by water. The rest is covered by Jeep!"


Jeep Road

"Jeep: Roads? Where we are going, we don't need roads."


As an introduction, here is an impressive video of the young Sant Andreu Jazz Band playing Jeep's Blues with Eva Fernandez and Dick Oatts taking the saxophone solos.





From 1936, Ellington began to make recordings of smaller groups (sextets, octets, and nonets) drawn from his orchestra of fifteen. He Johnny Hodgescomposed pieces that would feature one of the instrumentalists, such as Clarinet Lament for Barney Bigard, Trumpet in Spades for Rex Stewart, Echoes of Harlem for Cootie Williams and Jeep’s Blues for Johnny Hodges.

Alto saxophonist John Cornelius Hodges joined the Ellington band in 1928. He had already been playing with Sidney Bechet and Chick Webb, and it was Barney Bigard who recommended him to Duke when the bandleader wanted to extend his orchestra. His family had moved from Cambridge, Massachusetts to Boston where Johnny grew up with Harry Carney, Charlie Holmes and Howard E. Johnson. Having started out on drums and piano (his mother, Katie, was a good pianist), he switched to soprano saxophone in his teens when he met Sidney Bechet.

Johnny Hodges

The story goes that ‘When Hodges was fourteen, he saw Sidney Bechet play in Jimmy Cooper's Black and White Revue in a Boston burlesque hall. Hodges's sister got to know Bechet, which gave him the inspiration to introduce himself and play My Honey's Lovin Arms for Bechet. Bechet was impressed with his skill and encouraged him to keep on playing. Hodges built a name for himself in the Boston area before moving to New York in 1924.’

Johnny Hodges went by two nicknames – ‘Rabbit’ and ‘Jeep’. It was in his teens that he was first called ‘Rabbit’.  He was given the name by Harry Carney because of his rabbit-like nibbling on lettuce and tomato sandwiches, although others thought that it was because he could outrun the truant officers. Saxophonist Johnny Griffin said it was because "he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he's playing all this beautiful music.”


The Ellington Band playing Jeep's Blues in 1956.




In an interview with Downbeat magazine* in 1962, Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney spoke of their time together:

"Johnny and I lived a few doors apart," Carney said recently. "We used to get together and listen to records. And, of course, I've always been a great admirer of Johnny. I was trying to play alto in the same vein, and I stuck as close to him as he would allow me. It did me an awful lot of good."

Carney, a large man, sat quietly on the edge of a hotel-room bed. Hodges, a small man, sprawled on the bed, watching the flickering Harry Carneypicture of a silent television set. He chuckled occasionally. It was difficult to tell if he was amused by the TV show or by Carney's reminiscences of far-away days.

Carney continued: "Hodges was in New York before I came there. He was instrumental in getting me my first job in New York. That was in 1927. He was with Chick Webb at the Savoy Ballroom. They were having what they called a Masquerade Ball Night, an all-day, all-night affair. Instead of the regular two bands playing, there were four bands. Johnny got me a job in one of the relief bands. In the band was a fellow, Henry Saytoe, who had a job coming up in a couple of weeks at the Bamboo Inn, a Chinese-American restaurant. I got permission from my folks to stay, and I took that job. I was 17."

Harry Carney

Hodges, who speaks much the same way he plays, stirred when asked how he joined the band.

"I'd been with Chick Webb," he said, "You see, Duke started Chick, gave Chick his first band. Duke was working at the Kentucky Club, six pieces. Another club opened up on 50th Street and Seventh Ave. I don't remember the name of it. But I wanted a band just like Duke's. So he asked me to have a band, and I didn't want any part of having a band. He asked Chick. (Chick would stand on a corner and sing whole arrangements.) We got together with six pieces and tried to make it sound like Duke. We did pretty good until we had had a fire. During that time fire was common in clubs. We went up to the Savoy for two weeks. Stayed about six months. I left and started gigging with a fellow named Luckey Roberts. The bread was good. Thought it would last forever. So I kept gigging and gigging and gigging. Meanwhile, Otto Hardwicke [who was playing alto with Ellington] had an accident, went through the windshield of a taxicab. Had his face all cut up, and I had to go to work for him. Duke offered me a job. I still wouldn't take the job, kept putting it off and putting it off. Everybody was trying to talk me into taking it. So I finally took it. And here I am."

Johnny Hodges was one of the Ellington musicians who were featured in Benny Goodman’s famous 1938 concert at Carnegie Hall. Goodman was impressed by the man, saying he thought he was "by far the greatest man on alto sax that I ever heard." Charlie Parker called him ‘the Lily Pons of his instrument’.

Lily Pons was a popular American operatic soprano and actress of the day who made three films for RKO and made numerous appearances on television and with the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She was also a fashion icon. Johnny Hodges was often very smartly turned out, but who knows whether this was in Charlie Parker’s mind?. Opera News wrote, "Pons promoted herself with a kind of marketing savvy that no singer ever had shown before, and very few have since; only Luciano Pavarotti was quite so successful at exploiting the mass media.”

Here is Lily Pons singing The Blue Danube in a clip from the movie That Girl From Paris accompanied by McClean's Wildcats




It is said that the nickname Jeep was given to Hodges by Otto Hardwick(e) after a character in the "Popeye" strip cartoon. Hardwick Jeep and Popeyealso named Billy Strayhorn "Swee 'Pea" from the same source. (Ellington's saxophonist Otto James "Toby" Hardwicke was born in 1904 and also started playing at fourteen).

Eugene the Jeep is a strange character, an animal with magical abilities. He first appeared in the Popeye cartoons in 1936.

"Wha's a Jeep?" - Popeye asks Professor Brainstine what exactly a Jeep is. Barinstine reples: “A Jeep is an animal living in a three dimensional world - in this case our world - but really belonging to a fourth dimensional world. Here's what happened. A number of Jeep life cells were somehow forced through the dimensional barrier into our world. They combined at a favorable time with free life cells of the African Hooey Hound. The electrical vibrations of the Hooey Hound cell and the foreign cell were the same. They were kindred cells. In fact, all things are, to some extent, relative, whether they be of this or some other world, now you see. The extremely favorable conditions of germination in Africa caused a fusion of these life cells. So the uniting of kindred cells caused a transmutation. The result, a mysterious strange animal.” When asked if he had any further questions, Popeye, totally unenlightened by this explanation, repeated “Wha’s a Jeep?”

In The Jeep (1938), Popeye presents the animal to Olive Oyl and Swee ‘Pea with the explanation, "The Jeep's a magical dog and can disappear and things." In Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep (1940), it is Popeye who receives the creature from Olive, in a box via a special delivery man, and with the premise that he had never seen the creature before: "Well, blow me down! A baby puppy!"


Check out this video of the character in the Popeye cartoon Jeep Is Jeep




Looking back, we can agree that Johnny Hodges warrants the description of ‘a magical character’, as for the rest .....

Jeep’s Blues is just one of the tunes that features Hodges in the Ellington bands. There were two pieces that particularly contrasted Hodges playing, the slow tempo of Jeep’s Blues and the swinging Jeep Is Jumping. Other features written for Johnny Hodges by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn include the ballads Passion Flower and Isfahan (from the Far East Suite).

As Helen Oakley Dance said in her liner notes for the 1968 LP compilation of the 1938 and '39 sessions (she also supervised some of these recordings), "The small-band sound, the band-within-a-band, had captivated popular imagination, and Johnny Hodges's talents dominated the new trend." This track brought much admiration for the beautiful blues playing of Hodges. "Jeep's Blues" became a much-played tune; this version is my favorite of several I've heard.

In the video below it is used as a background track to an advertisement for the Tower Of Terror queue music in Hollywood. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, commonly known as Tower of Terror, is a drop tower dark ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and at the Disney Studio theme parks in Tokyo and Paris. Except for the Tokyo ride, the attractions are based on the TV series The Twilight Zone. In the American and European versions of the attraction, guests enter the Hollywood Tower Hotel through the front gate. Throughout the entire queue area in most parks, typical 1930s jazz music can be heard, hauntingly echoing through a cracked, serpentine pathway which leads to the hotel. The outdoor queue winds through the overgrown gardens of the hotel and meanders to the west of the hotel entrance, past dishevelled and crumbling statuary and a vine-covered pavilion. Inside the doors, the Hollywood Tower Hotel appears frozen in time, everything in it draped in decades' worth of dust and decay.




Dean Alger describes the piece: 'The track opens with Johnny blowing the lovely and memorable theme in sublime bluesy style, including some wailing high notes on soprano sax that further deepen the impassioned playing. The small band offers perfect support, especially with full "chorus" voicings on further versions of the theme. Cootie Williams blows some searing, growling trumpet work with American Hustle posterthe mute, adding greatly to the blues feel and aesthetic texture. And Jeep's friend from his early Boston years, Harry Carney, offers a fine higher-range baritone sax break for another dimension to the musical mosaic.’

In 2013, the movie American Hustle was released starring Amy Adams and Christian Bale as two con artists who are forced by an FBI agent to set up an elaborate sting operation on corrupt politicians, including the mayor of Camden, New Jersey. From the review in The Guardian: 'We open in the Plaza hotel, New York, in 1978, where Christian Bale's dry cleaner cum art forger/loan shark Irving Rosenfeld is seen concocting an ostentatious comb-over involving glue, hairspray and an improbably pubic-looking appliance. The rituals of hair maintenance will play a key role in the ensuing drama; over the next two hours we will get to see most of the principal cast in curlers, notably Bradley Cooper, whose tightly coiled tresses involve a rigid regime of miniature rollers wound like over-cranked watch springs upon his increasingly agitated head. Cooper plays creepy federal agent Richie DiMaso, an ambitiously jumpy live wire who first busts and then enlists Rosenfeld, forcing him into a run-of-the-mill operation that almost accidentally spirals into something involving the city, the mayor and the mob, the latter in the form of (an uncredited) Robert De Niro's Victor Tellegio, a man so dangerous that he is going bald and doesn't even care.'

There is a scene in which Christian Bale and Amy Adams meet and he takes her to listen to an album where he plays Duke Ellington's Jeep's Blues. 'Who starts a song like that?' asks Bale.




'The real fireworks, however, come from the women: Amy Adams's fraudster's moll, whose fake Anglo-American accent wavers with brilliant precision; and Jennifer Lawrence's glamorously rattled New Jersey housewife, (Rosalyn Rosenfeld), who divides her time between setting fire to the kitchen and performing alcohol-fuelled renditions of Live and Let Die to the dismay of cheating husband Irving. Having earned a best actress Oscar for her lead role in Russell's previous film, the wilfully whimsical Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence here lets rip in a terrifically ballsy supporting role; part harpy, part siren, a vision of steely defiance with an undercurrent of cracked exasperation. But it is Adams who is the centre of the storm as the mercurial Sydney Prosser ... In a world in which everyone is pretending to be someone, only Sydney seems to know who she is, a quality due in large part to the strength of Adams's performance, which injects an unexpected note of reality into the garishly artificial proceedings.'

In this brief clip, director David O. Russell talks about how Duke Ellington's Jeep's Blues was used to set a mood for the relationship between Amy Adam's and Christian Bale's characters


The trailer for American Hustle - Is that really Katniss Everdene playing Rosalyn Rosenfeld?!




Johnny Hodges left the Ellington orchestra in 1951, started up his own band and made a number of recordings, but by 1955, he was back with Ellington and remained there for the rest of his life. He died from a heart attack on 11th May 1970 while visiting his dentist. Ellington was working on his New Orleans Suite at the time and Johnny’s last recordings are featured on the recording which was only half-finished when he died.

It came as something of a surprise to discover that the Chris Barber Band had played Jeep's Blues in a BBC live broadcast from the Royal Albert Hall in 1958.




The banjo is much in evidence, and trumpeter Pat Halcox takes the first solo, with Chris Barber following on trombone. In a duplicated clip, the person posting the video says: 'This is a recording I made in 1958 from the live broadcast of a trad concert. The BBC had started FM (mono) transmissions only a year or two before and it was probably a while before line-of-sight transmitters reached the far west of Cornwall, where I lived, arriving not long before this recording was made. There were several bands in the concert and I think Chris Barber had the concluding spot.'

Let's finish with a video of the young Rio Americano AM Jazz Ensemble taking Jeep's Blues slowly with feeling at the Essentially Ellington Competition in 2014. It begins with Devan Kortan on guitar, but the weight of the performance lies on the shoulders of alto player Lucas Bere.

Rio Americano High School, colloquially known as Rio, is a public high school in Sacramento, California. The Rio Americano band program is nationally recognized, having 3 levels of concert band and 4 levels of jazz ensemble. The AM Jazz Ensemble has been recognized as one the United States' top 15 high school jazz bands at the Essentially Ellington Jazz competition in New York City in 2001, 2002, 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013 and most recently in 2014. The ensemble has also won the Monterey Jazz Festival in the High School Big Band category an unprecedented 7 times, and finished third in 2011.


Ellington once said: “Johnny Hodges has complete independence of expression. He says what he wants to say on the horn…in his language, from his perspective.”

*Click here for the text of the Downbeat interview with Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges

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© Sandy Brown Jazz 2015