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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. 

They may have been together at the top, but they were different. Carter was better trained musically, but his tone was thinner, less viscous than Hodges, and so while Carter’s solos are models of harmonic development, they pack less of a wallop (to these ears) than Hodges’ emotional punch. 

Who was better? It is largely—but not entirely—a matter of taste. Carter was “the most admired alto saxophonist of the thirties,” wrote Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker, “but that was hardly surprising” since, in his view “Johnny Hodges didn’t draw himself up to his full height until 1940.” Jazz scholar Martin Williams expressed his preference by saying “Johnny Hodges can play the blues; Benny Carter not.”

But Carter was Hodges’ superior in terms of melodic invention and harmonic complexity. Benny Waters, who knew both men well, recalled a late-night cutting contest among Hodges, Carter and Jimmy Dorsey, at the time a more established figure than either. On the night in question, according to Waters, “Dorsey … came up to Harlem to jam with the best black alto saxmen.” Dorsey cut Johnny Hodges because, as Waters put it, Dorsey “knew a little bit more harmony than Johnny. Johnny, in his harmony, wasn’t too advanced.” Then, according to Waters,

somebody said, “Call up Benny Carter” … Benny started playing “Georgia Brown,” and … every four bars [Carter would] move into a different key.

Waters said Dorsey “got all red in the face and practically hauled up and walked out—looked like a drowned rat,” leaving Carter—whose nickname was “The King”—the winner. While Dorsey cut Hodges that night, with Carter’s encouragement he came back to win a rematch, again according to Waters:

Johnny was very upset, but Benny Carter told him not to worry, he’d get him the next time he showed up. [W]hen Dorsey came back the next week …  [t]hey did “Tiger Rag” and Benny suggested they do four choruses, taking it through the keys. When they got to B major [five sharps], Jimmy got his ass kicked.          

Perhaps Hodges developed his facility playing in the key of B at house-rent parties in Boston, where—Charlie Holmes recalled—the pianist was expected to play “in either F sharp or B natural. That’s all they’d play, on all the black notes, you know. And Johnny would take his horn out, without knowing about the keys, and just blow in any key.”

Rabbit’s Blues by Con Chapman takes a look at the life of alto saxophonist and jazz giant Johnny Hodges.

Hodges went on to become the first among equals in the Ellington orchestra, taking three solos to every one that the Duke gave to any other musician. Carter, on the other hand, made the fateful decision to spend the years from 1935 to 1938 in Europe. He ultimately decided to return to America for artistic reasons, saying, “I don’t hear enough decent music to inspire me at all and I think what keeps me going now is the anticipation of my return to America. I really don’t want to get too far behind.” Like many other expatriate American jazzmen, Carter found the more congenial racial attitude and higher acclaim given to jazz musicians overseas to be a tonic, but at the same time he began to thirst for the purer springs of his chosen art form back home.

Despite his admiration for Carter, there are signs that Hodges ultimately developed feelings of professional envy towards him. Carter was not just a musician but also a successful arranger, composer and bandleader, and thus achieved something Hodges didn’t; independence, both artistic and financial, from a bandleader. Jazzbos who rated intellect above emotion tended to favor Carter, as evidenced by some doggerel comparing the two that appeared in a 1942 issue of Swing magazine over the nom de plume “Snooty McSiegle”:

Johnny Hodges
Sounds gorgeous.
He knows how to jump it.
But Benny Carter
Is smarter.
He doubles on trumpet.

Carter was deferential to Hodges in some areas, such as the slow numbers in the Ellington repertoire; in 1977 at a performance in London, Carter stopped the pianist when he played two choruses of “Sophisticated Lady,” saying he “didn’t like to play that particular Ellington so closely associated with Johnny Hodges because the audience was expecting to hear it as Johnny did it. I knew I couldn’t satisfy those who wanted it played as Johnny would have done it.”

Benny Carter (photo: William Gottlieb)
Benny Carter, doubling on trumpet at the Apollo Theater, New York, October 1946 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

In 1968 Hodges and Carter appeared together at the Newport Jazz Festival along with Ellington and his rhythm section. Like many all-star aggregations, this one didn’t live up to its promise. Ellington and Carter shared a dressing room, which Hodges entered before the performance to ask, “What are we going to play?” Ellington answered, “I don’t know.” Ellington faced a looming deadline for a magazine article, and after musing to himself, turned to Stanley Dance, the Boswell to his Samuel Johnson, and said, “Write this down for me, please: ‘When a symphony man wants to know about jazz, he goes to Benny Carter. When a jazz man wants to know about the symphony, he goes to Benny Carter.’”

Ellington used the same words to introduce Carter a few moments later, but as the three stood in the wings he repeated to Hodges and Carter that he didn’t know what they would play. Once they were on stage, Ellington called for “Satin Doll,” then “Take the A Train.” Carter looked mystified, and played in a confused manner. Ellington then played a blues on which Carter and Hodges traded riffs, then two more tunes from the band’s regular repertoire. The set ended with a new number that Ellington’s small group had only begun to play recently, on which Carter trailed along with the help of a hastily produced lead sheet.

The set was, in the words of two jazz critics who were present, “shameful” and “the height of ineptness.” Carter, known for his gentlemanly demeanor and unwillingness to say anything negative about another jazzman was, as always, courtly and conciliatory: “Puzzling things occasionally take place on the bandstand when mixed units are put together hurriedly … I just try to play my part without worrying about anything else. I don’t think Duke or Johnny meant to be rude.” For whatever reason, Ellington seemed to have ambivalent feelings about Carter; while publicly praising him, when it came time to write his autobiography, he mentioned Carter only once and left him off a list of innovators on the saxophone.

Hodges may have been innocent in that incident, but he seemed guilty of rudeness towards Carter on another occasion, when Ellington needed a second alto at a Reno, Nevada gig in 1968. He called Carter and asked him (perhaps disingenuously) if he knew of anyone who was available. When Carter offered his own services, Ellington said he couldn’t afford him, but Carter said he’d do the gig “for kicks” if Duke would cover his expenses.

Johnny Hodges (photo: William Gottlieb)
Johnny Hodges at the Aquarium, New York, with (left to right) Duke Ellington, Al Sears, and Oscar Pettiford, November 1946 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

And so Carter rejoined the Ellington band after a 42-year absence (he had previously spent a few weeks with Ellington in 1926, before Hodges joined in 1928). He was received cordially by everyone—except Hodges. As Carter took his seat Hodges gave him a grudging hello, then turned his back “and never said anything else,” according to Carter’s biographers.

While Hodges was known for being taciturn, his chilly reaction to the presence of his principal competitor on that job may have reflected tensions between him and his boss; Hodges was persistent in demanding better pay, and Ellington’s choice of Carter as a temporary stand-in may have been intended to tweak the ego of Hodges, his resident diva. 

But 35 years after their first encounter in Saratoga Springs, Hodges’ admiration for Carter endured. Asked by Stanley Dance in 1960 which alto players he especially admired, Hodges emphatically named as his first choice Willie Smith, known primarily for his work with Jimmie Lunceford’s band. 

And whom did he consider second after Smith? 

Benny Carter, he said.

From Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges by Con Chapman. Copyright © 2019 by Con Chapman and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.