Saturday, June 2, 2012

Elmo Hope: A Jazz Composer Of Significance


© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“… Hope had a strong gift for melody, enunciating themes very clearly, and was comfortable enough with classical music to introduce elements of fugue and cannon [in his compositions], though always with a firm blues underpinning.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

“… [Elmo]Hope … received far more recognition posthumously than during his abbreviated career. … [He] was dead before his mid-forties, leaving behind only a handful of recordings to testify to .. his potent re-workings of the jazz tradition. … Hope's visionary style came to the fore on recordings made, both as a leader and sideman, in New York during the mid-1950s, but the revocation of his cabaret card due to drug problems limited his ability to build on these accomplishments. After relocating to California, Hope undertook sessions under his own name, as well as contributed greatly to the success of Harold Land's classic recording The Fox. Like Monk, Hope found his music branded as ‘difficult,’ and few listeners seemed willing to make the effort to probe its rich implications. He continued to work and record sporadically after his return to New York in the early 1961 until his death six years later, but never gained a following commensu­rate with the virtues of his steely and multifaceted music.”
- Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz [p. 248, paraphrased]

If you are a fan of the music of Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, and Benny Golson, then the music of Elmo Hope will also strongly appeal to you.

Frustratingly, however, as Ted Gioia states in the opening remarks to this piece, few people know anything about Elmo’s music, for the reasons he explains and because his recorded legacy was poorly treated for many years following his death in 1967 at the age of forty-four.

Thankfully, a number of CD and Mp3 reissues by Orrin Keepnews [Riverside and Milestone Records], Michael Cuscuna [EMI/Blue Note] and Jordi Pujol [Fresh Sound] have helped to make the music of this skillful composer available for wider dissemination.

Hope’s career was the subject of the following, brilliant recapitulation by J.R. Taylor, the former curator/director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University who was later to become a principal at the Smithsonian Institution Jazz Program.

© -J.R. Taylor, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Despite performing and composing talents that draw painfully near to the first rank of jazz, pianist Elmo Hope seems destined to remain virtually unknown.

He was born in New York of West Indian par­ents on June 27, 1923, and fully named St. Elmo Sylvester Hope, after the patron saint of sailors. Growing up in Harlem, he studied piano from his seventh year, and by 1938 he was winning solo recital contests. Even in the face of the over­whelming contemporary prejudice against blacks, he might have tried for a career as a "classical" performer, but other forces were already drawing him in a different direction. By now his circle of friends included two other young pianists who would wholly alter the course of their instrument in the next decade-Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. The three were often together in those years, their chords and lines rubbing off of one another in informal cutting/learning sessions. Bob Bunyan, another pianist-associate from this period, recalled "Bud had the powerful attack, and Elmo got into some intricate harmonies." Thirty-five years after the fact, we can hardly say who influenced whom among these rising talents, but in light of his later work it seems reasonable to con­clude that Hope contributed his share to the emer­ging modern piano style.

By the mid-1940s, Monk and Powell were beginning to establish themselves at the center of the jazz scene with Coleman Hawkins, Cootie Williams, John Kirby, Dizzy Gillespie, and other major leaders; later they would move on to jobs of their own.
But Hope remained on the fringe, away from the pinspot illumination of 52nd Street, working the dance halls and clubs of the Bronx, Coney Island, and Greenwich Village with such as Leo "Snub" Mosley, a capable trombonist who had taken to doubling on a bizarre hybrid instrument, the slide saxophone. Later still, his contemporaries stayed around New York, recording and building up their reputations; but Hope spent a great deal of time on the road, often with the rhythm and blues band of ex-Lionel Hampton trumpeter Joe Morris, or with singer Etta Jones. Though the musical fare of these groups was surely not what Hope would have chosen for himself, his 1948-51 Morris band-mates were stylistically sympathetic, and many of them—saxophonist Johnny Griffin (another ex-Hamptonite), Percy Heath, Philly Joe Jones-remained friends and associates throughout his life.

In June of 1953, Hope got his first important recorded exposure on a Lou Donaldson date for Blue Note. He was somewhat overshadowed, how­ever, by the presence of another newcomer-trumpeter Clifford Brown. A string of records fol­lowed in the next three years. There was another Donaldson date for Blue Note, and two ten-inch LPs for the same label under the pianist's own name. Prestige followed suit, recording Hope as the leader of a trio (still available, as The Elmo Hope Memorial Album, Prestige 7675), and as co-leader (with Frank Foster) of a quartet-quintet date. There were also sideman appearances with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. And there was the all-star date presented here.


None of this helped Hope to advance beyond the level of a capable sideman, scuffling from one job to the next. He seemed to be overshadowed at every turn. Reviews fairly observed that he sounded rather like Bud Powell—and in the mid-1950s there was no lack of pianists who resembled Powell to some degree.

Then, too, he had the inconvenient habit of recording with young musicians who were first hitting their strides, and thus were apt to outshine him in reviewers' eyes. This is emphasized in past reissues of the first of the enclosed albums. It originally and briefly appeared under Hope's name as Informal Jazz, but subsequent issues were en­titled Two Tenors, stressing the presence of John Coltrane and Hank Mobley.

By 1957, record companies were losing interest in him and opportunities for live performance in New York were severely limited. Specifically, at that time a performer with a felony conviction was unable to obtain a New York City "cabaret card," a necessary police authorization to work in clubs that sold alcoholic beverages. So Hope must have been glad to accept trumpeter Chet Baker's offer of a road tour. When they reached Los Angeles, he decided to remain. The southern California climate eased his persistent upper respiratory infections, and the easier pace of California living may have seemed refreshing after years of New York's hustle to survive.


But if Hope thought to establish himself as a bandleader or composer in Los Angeles he missed his guess. He got a foothold in the group of musi­cians around tenor saxophonist Harold Land-drummers Frank Butler and Lawrence Marable; bassists Curtis Counce, Jimmy Bond, Red Mitchell, and Herbie Lewis; trumpeters Dupree Bolton, Stu Williamson, and Rolf Ericsson. But the late 1950s was a bad time for jazz in Los Angeles, with few clubs open to uncompromising groups, particularly if they were local and predominantly black. Hope was developing rapidly as a composer, and it was painful for him to lack a regularly performing group that was familiar with his work. His only extensive interview (with John Tynan, printed in Down Beat, January 5, 1961) reflected this deep frustration: "The fellas out here need to do a little exploring. They should delve more into creativity instead of playing the same old blues, the same old funk, over and over again. . . . There's not enough piano players taking care of business. . . . Matter of fact, after Thelonious and Bud-and I came up with those cats over 15, 16 years ago-1 haven't heard a damn thing happening. Everybody now is on that Les McCann kick. And he's getting his action from Red Garland. I'm not lying. ... If any of them who read this think I'm jiving, let 'em look me up and I'll put some music on 'em. Then we'll see who's shuckin'."

Despite these acerbic remarks—particularly blunt in light of the typical musician's tendency to over­praise colleagues—Hope is remembered by Los Angeles associates as a warm friend, generous with encouragement and musical knowledge, and pos­sessed of a warm sense of humor that only dis­appeared completely when the time came to rehearse and perform his music. Nor was his Cali­fornia period entirely without its satisfactions. In 1959, he met his wife-to-be. Bertha, a professional pianist of several years standing who was trying to learn some of his compositions. They were married soon after; and Monique, first of their three child­ren, was born the next year. There were also recordings: several tracks that cropped up on World Pacific samplers; a Curtis Counce date for Dootone; and two records produced for HiFiJazz by David Axelrod (now an active composer, ar­ranger, and producer)—a quintet date led by Land, and a trio session.

The HiFiJazz albums made Hope's critical repu­tation, but otherwise had little effect on his diffi­cult situation. During a 1960 trip to California, Riverside producer Orrin Keepnews had expressed interest in recording the pianist; he was mildly nonplussed when Hope unexpectedly returned to New York in the following year, but the second of the two albums in this package resulted, as did a Riverside album that combined solo piano with some duets between Hope and his wife. In the same year, there were also a couple of trio albums for the obscure but related Celebrity and Beacon labels. But after this initial surge of activity, New York gave few new opportunities to Hope. There was some work with Johnny Griffin, but the pianist was still legally restricted from fully follow­ing his trade. He compensated by selling some of his compositions as arrangements to various estab­lished groups, and by doing some outright commer­cial arranging. In 1963, he had his final chances to record, on sextet and trio albums for Audio-Fidelity. The sextet album, Jazz from Riker's Island, traded heavily on its assertion that most of its musicians had past narcotics problems. The pro­ducer of that session delivered himself at length in his liner notes on such problems, observing that some musicians "become easier victims because of the places where they're forced to make a living— and they don't even make a good living." This same producer also awarded himself co-copyright of the six Hope compositions on the album-presumably with an eye toward bettering the pianist's living.

By 1966, Hope's health had slipped badly, and he was rarely able to perform. Late in April 1967, he entered a hospital for treatment of pneumonia. Three weeks later, he seemed on the way to recovery, and his release was planned. But his heart stopped without warning on the 19th of May. …”

The audio track on the following video tribute to Elmo is from his stint in Los Angeles and was  made with the assistance of the stellar graphics team at CerraJazz LTD and developed under the oversight of StudioCerra Productions.

Entitled The Race for Space, in addition to Elmo on piano, it features Harold Land on tenor saxophone, Rolf Ericsson on trumpet, Curtis Counce on bass and Frank Butler on drums.