This profile was inspired by an exceptional article published on "All About Jazz" webpage by Derek Taylor called “St. Elmo’s Fire” where he focuses and expands on Elmo Hope’s music and recordings. Please read it!!
St. Elmo Sylvester Hope was born in New York on June 27, 1923, began piano studies by age seven and went on to win prizes for his piano recitals. He was a childhood friend of Bud Powell, and Thelonious Monk and they would play piano for each other. He continued to play and improve and upon his return from the army in 1943, he dedicated his life to jazz piano, paying his dues in small clubs in the Bronx, Greenwich Village, and Coney Island.
There were recording sessions while he was working with ex-Lionel Hampton trumpeter Joe Morris between 1948 and 1951, but that didn’t really garner much exposure. It was not until June of ’53 where dates with Lou Donaldson and Clifford Brown for Blue Note started to give Elmo Hope a name in jazz circles. He followed quickly with some sessions as leader, and another with Frank Foster, both for Prestige. There were further Prestige sides cut with top players as John Coltrane, Donald Byrd, with Paul Chambers bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. These were originally called “Informal Jazz”, but as Coltrane became a bigger name the title was changed and Hope became regulated to the role of sideman.
His piano style was overshadowed by the growing popularity of both Powell and Monk, and though he was in there since the beginning of the bebop movement, he was compared to and judged against the other two. His cabaret license was pulled for a previous drug conviction and this severely limited where he could work if at all. This would start a cycle of disillusionment and frustration that would hound him all his life.
California seemed like the place to try it next, and so in 1957 he went west with Chet Baker. Hope was suffering from respiratory aliments, and the dry climate suited him just fine. There was a brief spell working with Lionel Hampton, then joining Harold Land, with whom he recorded “The Fox” in ’59, followed by a session with his own trio. He married in California in 1960, and was at least happy and healthy.
But there was not much work out on the coast for a bebop pianist, and he grew restless again. So it was back to New York, where in ’61 he recorded “Homecoming” (Riverside) with Blue Mitchell, Jimmy Heath, and Frank Foster, these sessions included Percy Heath on bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums, who were on his trio sides at this time. There was a solo piano effort where he was joined by his wife Bertha, also a pianist. There were a couple of more recordings in ’61 for the Celebrity and Beacon labels, which were remakes of some of his older material.
Elmo Hope would reemerge in 1963 to record “Sounds from Riker’s Island” (Audio-fidelity) and it was not until 1966 he would record two more as a trio for the same label. These last two were released years later, as many of his recordings were, in a posthumous revival of his music, heralded as a cult figure in the shadows of bebop. In 1967 he was hospitalized with pneumonia, and consequently suffered a heart attack. Elmo Hope died on May 19, 1967.
I intentionally did not dwell too much on the negative aspect of Elmo Hope’s life. Just shedding a brief light on a pianists short career, in the tough world of bebop jazz in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s where there were not many who survived the rigors of the lifestyle and the demands of the music. A lot of players, not just pianists, fell by the wayside, but the music lives on, and we are all better for it.