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
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 New
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 California 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.” New
Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz [p. 248,
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
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 [
and Milestone Records], Riverside Michael Cuscuna [EMI/Blue Note] and Jordi Pujol [Fresh
Sound] have helped to make the music of this skillful composer available for
Hope’s career was the subject of the following, brilliant recapitulation by J.R. Taylor, the former curator/director of the
at Institute of Jazz Studies who was later to become a principal at the
Smithsonian Institution Jazz Program. Rutgers University
© -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 , 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 New York 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. Hampton
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 -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
were severely limited. Specifically, at
that time a performer with a felony conviction was unable to obtain a New York "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 New York City , he decided to remain. The southern Los Angeles climate eased his persistent upper
respiratory infections, and the easier pace of California living may have seemed refreshing after
years of California 's
hustle to survive. New
But if Hope thought to establish himself as a bandleader or composer in
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, Los Angeles 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
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. California
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 in the following year, but the second of
the two albums in this package resulted, as did a New York 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, 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. New York
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
made with the assistance of the stellar graphics team at CerraJazz Los Angeles LTD and developed under the oversight of
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.