“The hounds of spring are on winter’s traces,” wrote Algernon Charles Swinburne—which means fresh vegetables from the garden can’t be far behind. Tomatoes played a big role in the life of Cornelius “Johnny” Hodges, and therein lies a tale.
Johnny claimed that he acquired the nickname “Rabbit” because he was fleet of foot, and could outrun truant officers. “They never could catch me,” he said. “I’d go too fast. That’s why I’m called ‘Rabbit’.”
But his South End boyhood friend and Ellington bandmate Harry Carney begged to differ. Carney said that Hodges liked lettuce and tomato sandwiches, and when he nibbled on them he looked like a rabbit.
For a nickname to stick from boyhood to adulthood it has to have a basis for doing so, however, and in Hodges’ case fellow musicians offered a variety of reasons why they called him “Rabbit.” Ellington trumpeter said that “straight on, he did look like a rabbit.” Tenor sax Johnny Griffin seconded this theory: “Johnny looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music.”
Johnny retained his fondness for tomatoes during his many years on the road with Ellington. He was both a gourmet and a gourmand, and would order New England tomatoes by phone calls to friends. While he was short of stature, he had a big appetite. “Johnny Hodges,” a British reporter once wrote, is “one of those small men who loves the wing of any chicken, always has a box of food that’s quickly devoured by the sea-gullic Ellingtonians, and spends his winnings on lamb chops and peas.” On one occasion, a waiter in Hollywood brought orders out to a table full of Ellington men and when Johnny noticed that his portion of the same dish was smaller than someone else’s, said “Just because I’m smaller than he is, do you thing I can’t eat as much?”