There’s a bona fide scene going on these days under the revived Minton’s banner in Harlem, and it includes both notable music and good food. Next weekend—December 12 and 13—I’ll be sure to be there for Andy Bey, who gets my vote, hands down, as the best living male jazz singer, and who is also his own best accompanist on piano.
Sunday, December 7, pianist Bertha Hope will lead a quintet dedicated the music and memory of her late husband, Elmo Hope, an important jazz pianist and composer whose was a close associate of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell during a time when bebop innovations were being formulated and refined. Although Betha recorded three piano duets with Elmo (who died in 1967) few knew that she was a talented pianist until her 1992 Minor Music release Between Two Kings.
Like Elmo did, Bertha has a gift for subtle innovation. I hope I make it up to Minton’s to hear her. If you’re in New York, you should too. And here’s a little piece I wrote about here a dozen years ago (hence the dated references) for Jazziz magazine, that I’ve dug up in celebration.
By the time Bertha Rosemond was in junior high school in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, she was immersed in music. She’d walk home from school with a boy from her neighborhood who just happened to be destined for jazz immortality, Billy Higgins, and he’d play his sticks on anything he could: a fence, a garbage can lid. They’d trade recordings of the latest music. One day, a friend of Billy’s lent her something exotic, from New York: The Amazing Bud Powell.
“I was hooked,” she recalls, now decades removed at an Italian restaurant in Manhattan. “I heard this interval I hadn’t encountered: the flatted fifth. I kept trying ‘til I could play that beginning. I was picking it up by ear.” The young Bertha had started on piano at 3, having played in churches for her father, a singer, at 10 or 12, and having been blessed with the ability to hear such things.
When she heard a record of another cutting-edge pianist, Elmo Hope, she began working that out too — taking it off the record, unraveling the unusual chord voicings and sequences. Soon Elmo Hope came to Los Angeles with trumpeter Chet Baker’s band, and then stuck around. Soon Bertha Rosemond met him, drove him home one night.
“I told Elmo I was learning some of his music. I don’t think he believed me, though,” she says. “But I played a couple of his song for him. From then on, I had legitimacy with him.”
These days, nobody doubts Bertha Hope’s legitimacy — or her drive, for that matter. She and Elmo married in 1960, then came to New York a year later. They had three children together. Elmo recorded several outstanding albums, with the likes of bassist Percy Heath, saxophonist Harold Land, drummers Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach. There was a set of duets with Betha on his 1962 Riverside recording, Hope-Full.
Although much lesser known than Powell or Thelonious Monk, Elmo Hope was one of the earliest and most influential bebop pianists, with distinctive style of composition. He was also a heroin addict, dead by 1967.
Bertha Hope lived through all that, found a way to move on: she worked as a teacher and a school administrator, raised her kids, kept playing when she could. All the while, she stayed dedicated to Elmo’s music, kept working it out and keeping it alive. Now 66, she’s a working pianist and bandleader who may only recently have come into her own, with four albums to her credit as leader. “I’m a late bloomer,” she admits.
Along with trumpeter and arranger Don Sickler, Bertha has made sure that Elmo’s music is transcribed, published, played, and passed on. “It’s important,” she says. “I’ve dedicated so much time to just dealing with this music that it’s really changed how I play it and how I play anything. I’ve had to pull it apart to make sure that it was accurately written down, that it was an accurate rendition.” In the 1980s, she formed the first of several bands dedicated to his music.
Last fall, pianist Eric Reed had her and the band play at Columbia University’s Miller Theater, as part of a series of “Jazz Portraits” of under-appreciated composers. “The thing about Bertha,” he explains, “is she brings her love and appreciation and talent to the task of keeping his spirit alive — it’s almost like an extension of him. And it’s an expression of her own brilliance.”
photo courtesy of Bertha Hope