Elmo Hope

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Elmo Hope
Elmo Hope, jazz pianist.gif
Background information
Birth name St. Elmo Sylvester Hope
Born June 27, 1923
New York City, New York, US
Died May 19, 1967(1967-05-19) (aged 43)
New York City, New York, US
Genres Jazz
Occupations Musician, composer, arranger
Instruments Piano
Years active 1940s–1966
Associated acts Bertha Hope, Harold Land, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell

St. Elmo Sylvester Hope (June 27, 1923 – May 19, 1967) was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger, chiefly in the bebop and hard bop genres. Hope's contemporaries included Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, and he grew up playing and listening to jazz and classical music with Powell.

Hope survived being shot by police as a youth to become a New York-based pianist who recorded with several emerging stars in the mid-1950s, including trumpeter Clifford Brown, and saxophonists John Coltrane, Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, and Sonny Rollins. A long-term heroin user, Hope had his license to perform in New York's clubs withdrawn after a drugs conviction, so moved to Los Angeles in 1957. He was not happy during his four years on the West Coast, but had some successful collaborations there, including with saxophonist Harold Land.

More recordings as leader ensued following Hope's return to New York, but they did little to gain him more public or critical attention. Further drug and health problems reduced the frequency of his public performances, which ended a year before his death, at the age of 43. He remains little-known, despite, or perhaps because of, the individuality of his playing and composing, which were complex and stressed subtlety and variation rather than the virtuosity predominant in bebop.

Early life[edit]

St. Elmo Sylvester Hope was born on June 27, 1923, in New York City.[1] His parents, Simon and Gertrude Hope,[2] were immigrants from the Caribbean,[1] and had several children.[3] Hope began playing the piano aged 7,[4] had classical music lessons as a child, and won solo piano recital contests from 1938.[1] Fellow pianist Bud Powell was a childhood friend;[1] together, they played and listened to jazz and classical music.[5] Hope attended Benjamin Franklin High School, where he studied music, and left before the end of 1940,[6] at which point he lived with his parents at 1663 Madison Avenue.[7]

At the age of 17, Hope was shot by a New York policeman.[6] He was taken to Sydenham Hospital, where doctors reported that the bullet had narrowly missed his spine.[6] Six weeks later, Hope, who had been released from hospital, appeared in court, charged with "assault, attempted robbery and violation of the Sullivan Law".[8] The police officers involved stated in court that Hope had been part of a group of five involved in a mugging.[9] None of the other four, or any of the three alleged white victims, was identified by police; Hope stated that he had been running away with other passers by after police started shooting, and was hit while trying to enter a hallway.[9] The judge freed Hope of all the charges,[9] after which Hope's attorney described the shooting as an "outrage", and the charges as "an attempted frameup".[8]

Hope enlisted as a private in the US army on March 6, 1943.[10] The terms of enlistment stated that he would be in the army "for the duration of the War [World War II] or other emergency, plus six months".[10]

Early career in New York[edit]

Saxophonist Johnny Griffin recalled the group of musicians, including Hope, who practiced and learned together in New York in the days of late-1940s[11] bebop: "We'd go to [Thelonious] Monk's house in Harlem or to Elmo's house in the Bronx, we just did a lot of playing. I played piano a bit, too, so I could hear what they were all doing harmonically. But if something stumped me, I'd ask and Elmo would spell out harmonies. We'd play Dizzy [Gillespie]'s tunes or Charlie Parker's."[12] Powell, Monk and Hope were considered by their contemporaries early in their careers to be influences on each other, and all, therefore, influenced the development of jazz piano.[13]

Hope was part of an octet led by trumpeter Eddie Robinson late in 1947,[14] and played briefly with Snub Mosley.[15] Hope had gigs in dance halls and clubs[4] before starting his first long-term association – with the Joe Morris band, where he stayed from 1948 to 1951,[15] including for several recordings.[16] This band toured all over the United States.[17] In June 1953 Hope recorded in New York as part of a quintet led by trumpeter Clifford Brown and alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson.[15] Critic Marc Myers suggested that the six songs the band recorded "sparked a jazz revolution that became known as 'hard bop'".[18]

That 1953 session also helped Hope gain exposure with Blue Note Records' producer Alfred Lion, who supervised his debut recording as a leader around a week later.[15] This resulted in the 10-inch album Elmo Hope Trio, which had Morris alumni Percy Heath on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums.[15][16] The tracks recorded illustrated, in critic Kenny Mathieson's view, that Hope was interested in the architecture and aural detail of the music more than in individual virtuosity.[19] A further Blue Note recording session 11 months later, with a band that included saxophonist Frank Foster and drummer Art Blakey, led to Elmo Hope Quintet, Volume 2.[15][20]

In August 1954 Hope was pianist for a Prestige Records session led by saxophonist Sonny Rollins, which was released as Moving Out, and for another session with Donaldson.[21] Hope signed to Prestige in 1955,[22] and recorded the trio album Meditations for them that year. This was followed by the sextet Informal Jazz the following year, with Donald Byrd (trumpet), John Coltrane and Hank Mobley (tenor saxophones), Paul Chambers (bass), and Jones (drums). Some commentators have suggested that sessions such as this and the ones with Brown and Rollins were a hindrance to Hope's career: "He too often recorded with young, rising overshadowing talents" wrote a Buffalo Jazz Report reviewer in 1976.[23]

In January 1956 Hope recorded with another rising star, Jackie McLean, for the saxophonist's Lights Out![21] In April of the same year Hope should have appeared on saxophonist Gene Ammons' The Happy Blues, but left the studio before the session began and did not return.[21] Hope claimed that he had gone to visit an aunt in hospital, but his absence was attributed by others to his heroin addiction.[21] This drug problem led to the withdrawal of Hope's New York City Cabaret Card around 1956, following a conviction for possession of narcotics, so he was no longer permitted to play in clubs in the city.[1][16]

Life and career in Los Angeles[edit]

Unable to earn a living in New York because of the performance ban, Hope toured with trumpeter Chet Baker in 1957 and then began living in Los Angeles.[1] He soon found other musicians who had been influenced by bebop, including saxophonist Harold Land and bassist Curtis Counce.[24] Hope played with Rollins again, and, in October 1957, recorded another album, The Elmo Hope Quintet Featuring Harold Land.[16] In March of the following year Hope became part of Counce's band, and went on to record two albums with the bassist.[25] Hope also did some arranging for others around this time, including for Land's 1958 Harold in the Land of Jazz.[24] Hope also had his own band, with personnel that varied; Charlie Haden was bassist for part of 1958–59.[26] In 1959 Hope played with Lionel Hampton in Hollywood,[1][16] then with Rollins again in San Francisco.[16] The rhythm section of Hope, bassist Scott LaFaro, and drummer Lennie McBrowne played for another two weeks in San Francisco, with Land replacing Rollins as saxophonist.[27] This quartet then moved north to play at a venue in Vancouver.[27] Back in Los Angeles in August 1959, Hope was pianist for Land's quintet album The Fox;[16] he also wrote four of the album's compositions.[25]

In Hope's only major published interview[28] (written up for Down Beat in January 1961 and entitled "Bitter Hope"), he criticized the lack of creativity in the then-popular church-influenced soul jazz, complained about the shortage of good musicians in Los Angeles, and lamented the lack of work opportunities in the few jazz clubs in the area.[29] Jazz historian David Rosenthal suggests that, while Hope was generally unhappy with the opportunities to develop musically on the West Coast, he did advance, and created "two monumental albums for Hifijazz that ensured his place in history" – Elmo Hope Trio and The Fox, both from 1959.[30] The former received a rare five-star review from Down Beat, with the comment that Hope's aesthetic was "a sort of bitter-sweet melancholy that seems to lie at the core of other jazzmen [...] who sometimes find the world 'a bit much', as the English say, to cope with."[31]

Hope left Los Angeles later in 1961. His wife, Bertha Hope, recounted that he was no longer working with Land, had recording offers from companies based on the East Coast, and still preferred there to Los Angeles, so the couple and their baby daughter moved to New York.[3]

Life and career back in New York[edit]

In June 1961 Hope was part of drummer Philly Joe Jones' quintet, which included trumpeter Freddie Hubbard.[32] Hope recorded four new albums in New York around 1961,[20] including Hope-Full, which contained his only piano solo tracks and some duets with his wife, also playing piano.[28][33] She later commented that "It was unexpected and I was scared to death."[33]

Some of the companies that he recorded for at this stage in his career reduced Hope's dignity, in the view of musician and critic Robert Palmer: one album was entitled High Hope! (1961), and another, released as Sounds from Rikers Island (1963) in reference to a New York City jail complex, featured performances exclusively by musicians who had at some point been imprisoned for drug-related crimes.[34] Between these two sessions as leader, Hope was briefly in prison again for drug offenses.[35] These and other album releases in the early 1960s did little to develop a wider awareness of Hope.[35]

Hope played with McLean again late in 1962.[36] He also led a piano trio: early in 1963 it contained Ray Kenney on bass and Lex Humphries on drums;[37] in late 1964 it had John Ore on bass and Billy Higgins on drums.[38] In 1965 Hope was still leading a trio and quartet in the New York area.[39][40] Drug and health problems, however, meant that he played less often late in his career.[1][31] His last recordings were made in 1966, but not released for eleven years.[41] Hope's final concert was at Judson Hall in New York City in 1966.[25] Fellow pianist Horace Tapscott reported that, later, Hope's "hands were all shot up and he couldn't play."[42] Hope was hospitalized with pneumonia in 1967 and died a few weeks later, on May 19, of heart failure.[15]

Playing style[edit]

Hope's playing was strongly based in the blues-influenced jazz tradition.[43] He employed dissonant harmonies and jagged, contrasting lines and phrases.[31][43] Rosenthal stated that Hope's playing on one of his compositions for the 1953 Donaldson–Brown recording illustrated "many elements of the pianist's emerging style: somber, internally shifting chords in the introduction; punchy, twisting phrases in the solo; and the smoldering intensity that always characterized his best work."[5] Critic Ronald Atkins described Hope's sense of time and dynamics: "he places the notes almost anywhere except on the beat, he falls well behind the tune or leaps ahead of it and one cannot anticipate when the dynamic level will rise or fall."[44] The Billboard reviewer of Hope's final recordings, as reissued in 1996, commented that "he's dynamically smoother than Monk, with a spidery; spacy touch. His harmonic and compositional approach is intricate in design and almost eerie in execution."[41] Coda critic Stuart Broomer also commented on Hope's touch, suggesting that it was unusual and light, and created a combination of delicacy and boldness that was all his own.[45] Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler summarized Hope's abilities: he had "a style that parallels Powell, [...and] was a pianist and composer of rare harmonic acuity and very personal interpretation."[1]


The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz states that Hope composed around 75 pieces of music, which "range in character from a tortuous nervousness to an introspective, semi-lyrical romanticism. "Minor Bertha", for example, departs from the norm by using a 35-bar AABA form; more significantly, its A section, nine bars long, utilizes unconventional rhythms and weakly functional harmonies which obscure its phrases. Such other pieces as "One Down, Barfly, and Tranquility" [...] also offer fine examples of his idiosyncratic creativity."[16]

The Penguin Jazz Guide commented that Hope's compositions were strongly melodic, with some containing concepts of fugue and canon taken from classical music, but retaining foundations in the blues.[46] Atkins stated that Hope wrote highly structured, complex compositions that he played with improvisational flexibility.[44] Commentator Kenny Mathieson suggested that "The striking originality of his writing has not been reflected in any widespread adoption of his compositions by other musicians, however, and it may be that they were ultimately too closely linked to his own personal expression – and in some cases perhaps simply too difficult – to encourage much in the way of such experiment."[4]

Personal life[edit]

In the army enlistment records of 1943, Hope was listed as "Single, with dependents".[10] At some point, he had been married and had a son, who died.[25] Hope met the pianist Bertha Rosemond[47] when he was playing with Baker, and married her in 1960.[3][33] They had three children;[25] she was aged 31 at the time of her husband's death.[48] Their daughter, Monica Hope, became a singer.[3]

Legacy and influence[edit]

Later pianists who have cited Hope as a major influence include Frank Hewitt (1935–2002),[49] Hasaan Ibn Ali (1931–1981),[50] Lafayette Gilchrist,[51] and Sacha Perry.[52] Modern jazz guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel has mentioned Hope as an influence: "I love Elmo's phrases and rhythms and songwriting."[53]

Bertha Hope has released albums dedicated to his compositions. She and her later husband, bassist Walter Booker, created a band called "Elmollenium" in 1999,[33] "dedicated to playing the music of Elmo Hope".[54] She said, "Here's a new millennium and Elmo's music still needs more delivery to the planet. [...] We didn't have a large amount of arrangements due to an apartment fire we had some years ago in the Bronx that ruined most of the manuscripts. I had to listen to a lot of Elmo's music to get it down."[33]

Another to have attempted a reassessment of Hope's career is Chuck Berg, writing for Down Beat in 1980. He attributed the ignoring of Hope by most jazz fans and critics largely to his "unique pianistic approach", which differed from that prevalent in jazz generally and in bebop in particular.[55] Berg compared the "aggressive assertiveness, massive outpourings of raw energy and displays of technical athleticism" that, he argued, are valued in jazz, with Hope's more nuanced and intellectual approach: "He was a master of the subtle gesture, an Alexander Calder of jazz whose delicately balanced sonic mobiles seemed to float in space. Today, with the parameters of jazz considerably stretched since his final years, the climate is right for a careful reassessment of Hope's sublime pianistics."[55]

Palmer wrote on Hope and fellow pianist Herbie Nichols in 1987: they "had their problems, but they certainly deserve far better than they got; they were practically categorized out of existence. Dismissed as second-stringers and copyists when they were both prolifically creative and highly original, they suffered a neglect that is only now beginning to be dispelled in the case of Nichols, and that still continues in the case of Hope."[34]


As leader[edit]

Year recorded Title Label Personnel/Notes
1953 Elmo Hope Trio Blue Note Trio, with Percy Heath (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums)
1954 Elmo Hope Quintet, Volume 2 Blue Note Quintet, with Freeman Lee (trumpet), Frank Foster (tenor sax), Percy Heath (bass), Art Blakey (drums)
1955 Meditations Prestige Trio, with John Ore (bass), Willie Jones (drums)
1955 Hope Meets Foster Prestige Quartet, with Frank Foster (tenor sax), John Ore (bass), Art Taylor (drums); quintet on some tracks, with Charles Freeman Lee (trumpet) added
1956 Informal Jazz Prestige Sextet, with Donald Byrd (trumpet), John Coltrane and Hank Mobley (tenor sax), Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums)
1957 The Elmo Hope Quintet Featuring Harold Land Pacific Quintet, with Stu Williamson (trumpet), Harold Land (tenor sax), Leroy Vinnegar (bass), Frank Butler (drums)
1959 Elmo Hope Trio Hifijazz Trio, with Jimmy Bond (bass), Frank Butler (drums)
1961 Here's Hope! Celebrity Trio, with Paul Chambers (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums)
1961 High Hope! Beacon Trio, with Paul Chambers and Butch Warren (bass; separately), Philly Joe Jones and Granville T. Hogan (drums; separately)
1961 Homecoming! Riverside Sextet, with Blue Mitchell (trumpet), Frank Foster and Jimmy Heath (tenor sax), Percy Heath (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums); some tracks trio, with Heath and Jones
1961 Hope-Full Riverside Solo piano; some tracks are duo, with Bertha Hope (piano)
1963 Sounds from Rikers Island Audio Fidelity Sextet on most tracks, with Lawrence Jackson (trumpet), John Gilmore (tenor sax), Freddie Douglas (soprano sax), Ronnie Boykins (bass), Philly Joe Jones (drums); Earl Coleman and Marcelle Daniels (vocals; separately) on some tracks
1966 Last Sessions – Volume One Inner City Trio, with John Ore (bass), Philly Joe Jones and Clifford Jarvis (drums; separately); released 1977[20]
1966 Last Sessions – Volume Two Inner City Details as Last Sessions – Volume One

As sideman[edit]

Year recorded Leader Title Label
1958 Counce, CurtisCurtis Counce Exploring the Future Dooto
1958 Counce, CurtisCurtis Counce Sonority Contemporary
1953 Donaldson, LouLou Donaldson and Clifford Brown New Faces New Sounds Blue Note
1953 Donaldson, LouLou Donaldson and Clifford Brown Alternate Takes Blue Note
1954 Donaldson, LouLou Donaldson Lou Donaldson Sextet, Vol. 2 Blue Note
1958 Land, HaroldHarold Land Jazz at The Cellar 1958 Lone Hill Jazz
1959 Land, HaroldHarold Land The Fox Hifijazz
1956 McLean, JackieJackie McLean Lights Out! Prestige
1954 Rollins, SonnySonny Rollins Moving Out Prestige



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  • "Policeman Faces Lawsuit for Shooting Harlem Boy". New York Amsterdam News. January 18, 1941. 
  • Mathieson, Kenny (2012 [2002]). Cookin': Hard Bop and Soul Jazz. Canongate. 
  • Rosenthal, David (1993). Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music, 1955–1965. Oxford University Press. 

External links[edit]