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An Elmo Hope centennial celebration: Giving a jazz piano pioneer his due

<em>Jazz Night in America</em> celebrates the centennial of influential pianist Elmo Hope. Hear selections from his rare discography, pictured above.
Collage by NPR
Jazz Night in America celebrates the centennial of influential pianist Elmo Hope. Hear selections from his rare discography, pictured above.

Elmo Hope might be the biggest, most influential jazz pianist you've never heard of. He was born 100 years ago this June, in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance. Hope was a child prodigy in classical piano. As a teenager, he pushed his best friends Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk into wildly creative dimensions.

"Elmo was Bud's influence, and Monk," the drummer Philly Joe Jones says. "Monk and Bud loved Elmo so much. He was a real genius."

But while Monk and Bud entered the pantheon, Hope never came close to their level of celebrity. He faced a series of personal and creative setbacks in his life, including a heroin addiction which stunted his ability to play. It also led to the revoking of his Cabaret Card — a critical lifeline for artists like himself who relied on New York City's club scene to get noticed and find work.

Despite all those challenges, Elmo Hope has left an indelible mark on the story of jazz piano. He is revered as a subtle and intellectual player who merged his vast knowledge of harmony with his command of the blues. And his drive to create something new.

Elmo Hope died in 1967 at 43 years old. In his brief career, he released more than a dozen original albums and played with the biggest names in jazz, including John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown. He is still praised among jazz pianists including Vijay Iyer and Eric Reed as an artist who helped redefine the genre.

"He is one of the great composers," Reed says. "We have a lot of good composers in jazz music, but there aren't dozens of great ones. There's one Monk, there's one Duke Ellington, there's one Billy Strayhorn. And there's one Elmo."

Set List:

(All songs written by Elmo Hope except as indicated)

  • Elmo Hope Trio, "Mo Is On"
  • Clifford Brown, "De-Dah"
  • Elmo Hope, "Tranquility"
  • Elmo Hope, " So Nice"
  • Elmo and Bertha Hope, "Yesterdays" (Jerome Kern)
  • Elmo Hope Ensemble, "Monique"
  • Elmo Hope, "Minor Bertha"
  • Elmo Hope Trio, "Happy Hour"
  • Credits:

    Christopher Johnson, writer and producer; Katie Simon, consulting editor; Sarah Geledi, producer; Trevor Smith, producer; Ron Scalzo, episode mix; Suraya Mohamed, project manager; Keith Jenkins, vice president of visuals and strategy at NPR Music; Anya Grundmann, executive producer; Christian McBride, host.

    Copyright 2023 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

    Christopher Johnson