Hodges was mostly self-taught, although he did take lessons on soprano sax with Sidney Bechet. He had the nicknames Rabbit and Jeep. Ellington's practice of writing tunes specifically for members of his orchestra is reflected in the Hodges specialties, "Confab with Rab", "Jeep's Blues", and "Hodge Podge".
He had a pure tone and economy of melody on both blues songs and ballads that won him admiration from musicians of all eras and styles, from Ben Webster to John Coltrane, both of whom played with him when he had his own orchestra in the 1950s, to Lawrence Welk, who featured him in an album of standards.
He was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and died in New York City.
Duke Ellington's eulogy of Hodges included: "Never the world's most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes - this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges."