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Benny Carter vs. Johnny Hodges: Who Was Better?

A new biography on Hodges takes a brief look at this rivalry from jazz's golden age

Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter perform with Duke Ellington and his orchestra onstage at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 6, 1968 in Newport, Rhode Island. (photo: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Left to right: Benny Carter, Duke Ellington, and Johnny Hodges at the Newport Jazz Festival, July 6, 1968 (photo: Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

When Johnny Hodges moved from Boston to New York in the twenties, he began to make the rounds to see where he stood in the pecking order of alto saxes. One night in 1927 at a basement club on 7th Avenue, he heard a man whom he had met two years before in Saratoga Springs, New York, when they were both in that resort town playing summer gigs. Hodges was impressed enough to tell Charlie Holmes, a fellow altoist from Boston, to go “to Small’s Paradise and hear the greatest alto saxophone player in the world.” He was referring to Benny Carter, whom most would rank as Hodges’ only genuine rival on the alto over the next two decades.

Over the course of their careers, Carter and Hodges would frequently be linked. Benny Goodman listed the two as the top altos of the day, and Ben Webster, whose mature style was formed in part by imitation of Hodges, ranked Carter and Hodges among the top three saxes of his era, along with Coleman Hawkins. 

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