The Time Johnny Stiffed Malcolm X

In his younger days, Johnny Hodges claimed to be unconcerned about money, saying he would travel from Boston to New York and play only as long as he wanted to, often leaving unpaid wages he was owed by club owners behind. By the time he became a full-time working musician in his late twenties, his attitude had changed to that of the thrifty New Englander. In the words of a familiar Boston expression, he threw nickels around like they were manhole covers.

If you offered to buy him a drink you would usually hear him order a double gin, wiping out (in the words of one fan) “in one fell swoop my drinking allowance for the weekend.” One British writer who asked Hodges for an interview found that he was required to buy him dinner and, when Hodges tired of the questions, he got up from the table and took his food with him.

And there was his practice, when Duke Ellington called a number incorporating a riff that (in Hodges’ view) had been appropriated without proper credit or compensation, of miming the act of counting money on the band stand.

Malcolm Little, who would later become known to the world as Malcolm X, lived in Boston as a teenager in the early 1940s, and like many a young man, became entranced by the music of the day. “The jukeboxes were wailing Erskine Hawkins’ ‘Tuxedo Junction,’ Slim and Slam’s ‘Flatfoot Floogie,’ things like that,” he wrote in his autobiography. Malcolm would frequent Boston’s bars, restaurants and dance halls, particularly the Roseland-State, which featured a spacious waxed floor. He eventually became a shoe-shine boy there in order to support his jazz habit, and to spend more time listening to the music and seeing the men who made it.

One of his heroes was Johnny Hodges, who sat down in Malcolm’s chair for a shine before a performance by the Ellington band one night. Malcolm said he “would really make my shine rag sound like someone had set off Chinese firecrackers” when he shined the shoes of one of his idols, and Hodges was one of them. During the course of the shine Hodges got into “a friendly argument with drummer Sonny Greer.” When Malcolm “tapped the bottom of Hodges’ shoes to signal that” he “was finished, Hodges stepped down, reaching his hand in his pocket to pay, but then snatched his hand out to gesture,” Malcolm said. “He just forgot me, and walked away.”

Malcolm didn’t call Johnny out. “I wouldn’t have dared to bother the man who could do what he did with ‘Daydream’ by asking him for fifteen cents,” Malcolm recalled.

Johnny may have been tight with his money, but I don’t think he intentionally took Malcolm’s labor without compensation. A man of strong opinions, it is more likely he was so absorbed in his discussion with a fellow bandmate that he lost track of a just and honest debt, for which Malcolm felt he’d already been paid.

Contact information:
Johnny Hodges Appreciation Society, Inc.
14 Davis Brook Drive, #14
Natick MA 01760

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