This interview was done in December 2019. I wanted to talk to Bertha anyway, but it was also background research for my JazzTimes article “The Under-appreciated Career of Bertha Hope.” Special thanks to Don and Maureen Sickler for helping make this interview happen.
Ethan Iverson: You’ve been interviewed a lot, so I’ll try not to cover exactly the same ground as before. Today I’d like to focus on two discs, both quintets. Elmo’s Fire with Eddie Henderson, Junior Cook, Walter Booker, and Leroy Williams is from 1991.
Bertha Hope: A long time ago!
EI: There aren’t any liner notes. Russ Musto wrote some helpful notes for your first Steeplechase disc, In Search of Hope, but there aren’t any for the follow-up, Elmo’s Fire.
BH: Mmm. That’s right, we missed a deadline I think. Good liner notes can be very important.
EI: Let’s correct that oversight and go through the pieces on Elmo Fire so we have a little commentary about these distinctive pieces. The first song is “Low Tide,” by Elmo Hope.
BH: It’s an eight bar phrase, which I repeat over and over again. It ended up being my theme song for the repertory bands that preserve and promote Elmo’s music. His great music hasn’t received the attention that it deserves.
The band can play “Low Tide” quietly in the background while I talk to the audience, announcing the musicians and so forth. It’s not complicated, so it’s also a good introduction to for people who surely don’t know Elmo’s music. A one-note theme can be understood by anybody! The melody is a gateway, setting the stage for music that is wildly different. Elmo didn’t write anything else like “Low Tide,” at least to my knowledge.
EI: How did you learn the song?
BH: He recorded it a couple of times, sometimes with alternate changes or different titles. I also heard him play it in person.
EI: The second piece is “Mirror-Mind Rose,” a through-composed ballad by Elmo.
BH: Yes. That was written for Elmo’s second wife, Rosemary. The title comes from a very personal situation. Elmo was doing a short, three month sentence at Riker’s Island, for paraphernalia: possessing drug-related instruments. The song was dedicated to Rose, asking her to take care of herself while he was away. He is looking in a mirror, thinking of her. Trying to share her mind through a mirror.
EI: Next up is “Bai Tai Blues.”
BH: That was written for my cat, the cat’s name was “Tai.” I had to give up that cat because my son turned out to be allergic to Tai’s fur. Fortunately my neighbor could take him, so I could still see Tai.
EI: Oh, I thought maybe you were drinking Mai Tai’s at the time.
BH: No kidding! No, I spelled it that way just to be less obvious.
EI: “For Duke and Cannon” is by Sonny Fortune.
BH: When I heard Sonny play it, it was an uptempo piece. I slowed it down to see if would work as a ballad. He was shocked that I recorded something by somebody other than myself or Elmo, or a standard. But if you record somebody’s else’s music who is just on the scene, it can help establish that scene.
EI: I think playing composers who are peers is something you frequently do.
BH: Yes, things I’ve heard living composers play.
EI: On the previous trio disc, you play “Pas de Trois” by Paul Arslanian, which you learned from John Hicks.
EI: You are talking about a community.
BH: Absolutely. I listened to a lot of music that I like in real time. People who are still here, people whose music I tried to learn from and learn more about.
Of course, neither John Hicks or Sonny Fortune is here anymore. We’ve lost so many in recent years.
EI: Elmo’s “Bellarosa” is kind of an E-flat rhythm piece, a medium swinger.
BH: That was also for Rosemary. There are stories about musicians being jealous about songs written for other romantic partners, but I enjoy this music. I’m not jealous of Rose!
EI: The next track is your own composition, “Luna Negra,” a feature for Eddie Henderson.
BH: God just gave me that song. I didn’t compose it, I didn’t pick the title: It just came of a piece.
There was a lunar eclipse but I was working that night in the Bronx. The eclipse was going to happen right at the start of the first set. I went to the club owner and asked him if I could delay the start of the set so I could go outside and watch for 20 minutes, but he said no, there were already a lot of customers in the club who had bought drinks and wanted hear the music. But went around him, I took the microphone and asked the audience if they wanted to see the eclipse with me. They all said yes! I made sure to tell them that they better not stiff the club owner on their drinks, and then took the whole club outside on to the street and had a clear view of the eclipse. A lunar eclipse doesn’t happen as often as a solar eclipse, it’s a comparatively rare event.
EI: That’s great! You are a revolutionary!
BH: We went back inside after about 20 minutes. The club owner told me I was crazy but I was happy.
In the cab on the way home, this voice came to me and said, “That was magnificent. I’m going to give you a song to remember this.” And the whole song “Luna Negra” was right there, as a gift.
Later on I changed the introduction and accompaniment when I learned more about clave. But the tune is exactly as it was dictated to me.
EI: Where did you learn more about clave?
BH: Mario Rivera. He was a neighbor, and I would go over there when he had a session and listen. He could play every instrument and was very gracious with me. Then I also studied for a while with Frank Colón at Boy’s Harbor. I don’t have a great knowledge of clave, not compared to some, but with Mario and Frank I got something solid about the 2-3 and 3-2 claves.
EI: The last song on the disc is by Elmo, “Elmo’s Fire,” which is based on the changes of “After You’ve Gone.”
BH: That’s kind of a quick sketch, a couple of horn calls and then blowing.
EI: In my era, we sometimes use the word, “contrafact.” Have you heard that word?
EI: But in your generation, I don’t think you used that word.
BH: Of course not, The only people who use that word went to a university to learn about jazz. It’s a word manufactured in a university.
EI: Ok, I never really use that word myself, but consider it now officially banished from my vocabulary.
Was there something you would say when the song was written on some other changes?
BH: “This song is written on some other changes!”
BH: Did Bach or Beethoven use the word, “contrafact?”
EI: A fair point!
How do you practice up-tempo playing, like you do on “Elmo’s Fire?”
BH: Nothing I play is that fast, I wouldn’t know a 64th-note if it bit me. But I don’t practice scales, I practice the figures. I might look at something with a particular sound for a while. It’s eclectic.
EI: The bassist on this album is Walter Booker. You two were close. How did you meet?
BH: I was filling for a NEA grant, and Walter was introduced to me as someone who knew their way around that kind of thing. This was maybe 1981. He was good with grants and paperwork and also had this great underground studio called Boogie Woogie Studios on 87th and Amsterdam. Walter hand-built that studio from scratch. It was kind of crazy-looking but the sound was unbelievable, Boogie Woogie had a reputation for having a great sound. At that studio I met so many musicians who were rehearsing or recording there, including Larry Willis, John Hicks, and Ronnie Mathews. I could go sit down next to those great piano players and watch them play, even ask them questions. I learned some of their material.
Walter introduced me to all those musicians and then offered to play with me. I was amazed and delighted. I met all the musicians on Elmo’s Fire through Walter.
EI: How would you describe Walter’s bass playing?
BH: He called himself a “thumper.” A first-call bass player during that era. He was a lucky guy, when he first got to New York he immediately started with one of the best gigs, Donald Byrd. Walter was gregarious, he loved people, his studio was open to students from the High School of Music and Art.
EI: I understand why he called himself a thumper, that was his era, but on your albums I think he shows something interactive and lyrical in his playing.
BH: That’s true! And I’m not sure if I heard that with other people as much. I kind of helped him explore that side of himself. He even used the bow with me. There was a softer side that I could exploit because he played so hard with other groups. Live I had heard him most with Cannonball and Nat Adderley, but also with Sarah Vaughan. With Sarah he was sometimes a background bassist but they also had to play out. She would tell the audience, “I have some great musicians up here, and I want you to hear what they can do.”
EI: So the first record, In Search of Hope, was after about a decade of knowing Walter Booker.
BH: Yes, Walter encouraged me to record. For drums we got Billy Higgins. I grew up with Billy and knew him my whole life. Billy had a gig in New York and stayed an extra day or two to do that record with me.
EI: You met Billy Higgins in junior high?
BH: Yes, there were three of us who loved and traded jazz LPs. Billy Higgins, me, and a graphic artist named Danny Johnson.
Danny had the first Bud Powell record I ever heard, the one with “Un Poco Loco.” That captured me. That consistent sound at the beginning, and then the bridge…That kept me up all night.
We had some Shelly Manne and Shorty Rogers records, and also Duke Ellington’s The Liberian Suite on 10-inch. Our classmates were listening to whatever was on the radio but we loved those LPs.
EI: Your first trio record features Higgins, but on the follow-up quintet it is Leroy Williams. How would you describe Leroy’s playing?
BH: Right dead down the middle. Everything he does surrounds “one” in a beautiful way. For me, that was the best thing that could happen. I had a real problem with counting before I met Booker. Walter told me, “Ok, I’m the timekeeper. You need to keep your own time but I am the person who really says where ‘one’ is.” He taught me not to rush.
EI: I’m surprised, because the rhythm on this album is very settled. I admire Leroy Williams and I think this album is a noticeably good showcase for him.
BH: I love what he did on this record.
EI: The front line couldn’t be better, with Eddie Henderson and Junior Cook.
BH: Oh, they sounded so good together. I used to listen to Junior a lot when he was with Bill Hardman.
EI: I wish I could have heard some of that NYC music live, but I got here too late. I like Bill Hardman.
BH: He was a great trumpeter. He and Junior would frequently play together. They were very colorful personalities too!
EI: When you say, “colorful,” I think of when Fred Hersch told me he had a gig uptown with Junior Cook that started at 5 AM.
BH: That sounds about right! Oh, dear.
EI: How about Eddie Henderson?
BH: I didn’t know him as well but he was easy to work with and played beautifully. In fact, he requested to play on “Luna Negra.” I wasn’t planning to use horns on that one, but wanted to reflect that side of me on the album. After he heard me play it, Eddie wanted to join in. I was grateful, especially since he did such a great job. I love what he did with the mute. A lot of people don’t play so artistically with the mute but Eddie Henderson does.
EI: There’s another tenor player on here that I don’t know, Dave Riekenberg.
BH: He was hanging around with a friend of mine and trying to break into musical circles. He was very surprised when that friend introduced him to Walter Booker and the rest of us.
EI: He sounds good.
BH: Oh yeah, he sounds good. I liked him and thought it might be nice to have a two-tenor song on the album.
EI: Is this part of your generosity of spirit, giving an unknown a shot to battle it out with Junior Cook?
BH: Oh, well I didn’t feel like I was doing anything particularly magnanimous, I just thought it was good for the music, simply a way to create another kind of piece on an album. But it’s true that Elmo would do the same thing, hiring people that were comparatively unknown but still had something that he appreciated.
EI: Ok, good. Let’s move to this other quintet album with Frank Lowe, Jack Walrath, Steve Neil, and Ralph Peterson, Soul Folks.
I was looking for anything you had played on, and was frankly bowled away by both the album and your playing on it.
EI: I didn’t think of you as an avant-garde stylist, but this music is fairly avant-garde.
BH: Oh, it’s seriously avant-garde.
EI: You step in and play this stuff like you have been playing it your whole life!
BH: Well. It’s certainly true I haven’t played much avant-garde music. I guess I do sit down at the piano sometimes and randomly play, even with my eyes closed, and just sort of see where I land.
But what must come out on this album with Frank is all the listening I did over the years. I’ve heard a lot of avant-garde music, with sounds that were not coming from such a historical place in terms of melody and harmony.
What Frank’s music reminded me a little bit was Ornette Coleman. Thanks to Billy Higgins, I spent hours and hours listening to the early rehearsals of Ornette’s music with Don Cherry and Charlie Haden. I was right there when Ornette was changing his style.
Let’s see. I graduated High School in 1954, and then Eric Dolphy and I went City College together to enroll in music. I guess Ornette must have found Charlie Haden in 1957 or ’58.
They rehearsed at Billy’s house. I was there a lot. I was lucky to be invited to hear that band, but also, nobody cared but me. They were completely unknown. Billy told me, “You know, it’s a piano-less band, Bertha, so you can’t play with us, but you really need to hear this.”
EI: You enjoyed that music?
BH: Yes! Every chance I could get, I’d go over there and listen. Billy gave me a lead sheet one time. The first chord was a B-flat seven, but I didn’t hear a single B-flat seven in all of that music! I have perfect pitch, and that chart did not help me hear that music at all. I still liked it, although it came together even for me after I’d been away from it for awhile and heard it again.
One of Ornette’s songs that is more conventional is “The Blessing,” I could understand that one. Maybe he brought that one forward to remind him of what he used to do! It took me a long time to hear some of the other Ornette pieces that didn’t have the more conventional shape of “The Blessing.”
EI: Did you like Paul Bley when you heard him with Ornette?
BH: Yeah! He was interesting. That was a whole other thing, because I remember Carla too. Carla was very tough and determined. I asked her one time what she was doing, and she said, “I don’t know!” But she had guts enough to keep doing it.
EI: This is so long ago, but do remember anything else about those early Ornette rehearsals, like how long they might go?
BH: Those rehearsals went on forever, until they all fell asleep. They would play for simply hours and hours at a time. The same thing happened with Clifford Brown and Max Roach. Eric Dolphy invited me to those rehearsals, because they rehearsed at Eric’s house with Richard Powell on piano. Eric’s house was right around the corner from my parent’s house. Clifford Brown would play and play and eventually fall out, going to sleep in a chair with the trumpet in his lap. That was maybe from 4 or 5 in the afternoon, or whenever we were done with class, until 1 or 2 in the morning.
EI: I heard Richie Powell showed you some voicings.
BH: I took some lessons from him for a while. He showed me the cycle of fiths, and told me to practice certain simple voicings (in both open and closed position) in all the keys. Also, he played for me. Sometimes after my lesson he’d play for a few hours. He liked my mother’s piano, an old Story & Clark upright grand, it had a really nice sound. In fact, he liked it more than Eric Dolphy’s piano.
EI: I also heard that you needed to learn Avery Parrish’s “After Hours” to get your first gigs.
BH: I remember the first little club I played at, the first thing the owner said to me was, “Can you play ‘After Hours?’ Because if you can’t play ‘After Hours,’ you can’t play here.”
EI: At that time they sometimes called it, “The Black National Anthem.” How did you learn “After Hours?”
BH: By listening to it. I don’t think I ever saw it written down. I don’t think I even had the record, I just heard it off the radio. But…I first learned it in A-flat, not G!
EI: Oh no!
BH: Can you believe that?
EI: The figurations would be so much harder in A-flat, in fact I bet they are actually impossible.
BH: It was so crazy. Then years later when Chick Corea’s “Spain” was a big hit I learned that in a wrong key, too: C minor instead of B minor. It’s much easier in B minor.
EI: Yeah, but I’d rather play “Spain” in C minor than “After Hours” in A-Flat!
BH: In the case of “Spain” there was a tape recorder at the wrong speed. Usually my perfect pitch helps me out, but not that time.
EI: Well, to get back to Frank Lowe, it makes sense that you felt comfortable now that I know you spent so much time listening to Ornette Coleman, because this Lowe record is similar to an Ornette Coleman kind of concept.
BH: In a way, yes, certainly those melodic shapes. Even the notation was unusual, kind of like how Ornette had his own way of writing. Frank would put one note in every measure and you wouldn’t know what to do until you heard him play it.
I had to try to plug in. Jack Walrath played with Frank so much, he knew what he was looking at. I didn’t! I really didn’t!
EI: But you jumped in there and sound so confident.
BH: It’s just game, I guess. Frank was always very encouraging and complimentary to me, saying I was playing it perfectly. He always called me, “Miss Bertha.”
EI: At times you are playing what I might call quartal harmony, chords stacked in fourths.
BH: When I first did all my training, the chords were mostly in thirds. Then the fourth chords came in after I heard McCoy Tyner. You heard me play fourths here with Frank Lowe? I’m not really aware of systems when I’m playing. It really depends on what I’m surrounded by. But after McCoy I practiced replacing thirds with fourths and learned the associated scales.I understand harmony but sometimes I wished I had studied more to bring different kinds of variety to a song.
Still, intuition is very important.
My hands are small. Recently I’ve been taking some classical lessons and working on my technique, learning new ways to stay relaxed. It really works! I grew up with the idea you needed to pretend your hand was holding a ball, and keep your fingers curved. Now I’m learning to relax a bit and give my hand more range. It’s changing the way I play, I’m a little more fluid. Just shows you: It’s never too late to learn!
EI: Did you study classical repertoire when young?
BH: I didn’t do that much beyond a lot of Bach and a few easier things of Mozart and Beethoven. I didn’t get into the more sweeping things or concertos.
EI: Do you think Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Elmo Hope were aware of the that repertoire?
BH: Oh, yeah! That’s where they lived! They lived in Bach, and listened to a lot of Stravinsky and other modern composers. Elmo listened to a lot of Villa-Lobos. He and Coltrane both. In fact, Elmo and Coltrane were talking about doing some Villa-Lobos together in Los Angeles.
EI: That would have been interesting!
BH: It really would have been.
EI: Ok, I just have one or two more questions. I’m not totally clear about one thing: Did you take a few years off from playing?
BH: No, I was always playing. I was working during the day but I always had a band on the weekend. One of the bands was in New Jersey, so we didn’t get much New York attention, but we practiced every Sunday for about six hours. Doug Hawthorne was the vibraphonist, he was a good musician and great vibraphonist. But he didn’t want to be a starving musician, so he was carving out a career as a technician.
EI: Got it. But the trio with Walter Booker and Billy Higgins in 1991 was your first record, right?
BH: Yes, that was the first one. And I haven’t made so many since. I love the cut “Barfly” I made with Jon Irabagon, that was a surprise and really fun to do. Last year Félix Lemerle asked me to play on his album with Ari Roland and Jimmy Cobb, that was also enjoyable.
EI: Two of your trio albums feature Jimmy Cobb.
BH: Jimmy Cobb! He’s another one of those people that scared me half to death! His feel was so perfect I could hear every mistake with timing I made. I learned so much playing with him. And he and Booker together were amazing, they played for at least 20 years together in different configurations. They were like a brick wall. If you couldn’t play with them, you should just stop playing entirely. Just the best.
EI: I only saw Booker play one time, at Bradley’s, in maybe 1994 or ’95, with John Hicks.
BH: They played a lot there, even after Bradley died.
EI: That’s a certain era you are talking about, the Bradley’s era of the 1980s.
BH: Oh, that’s for sure. Bradleys was the hang. The bar might be closed but the people didn’t leave! I got in at sort of the tail end of that. Bradley had great taste in music, he invited people he would have liked to have heard in his living room. Very special environment. I played there with Booker and Junior Cook.
EI: Your quintet date with Junior Cook must have been one of his last records, because he died the following year. But he sounds strong on Elmo’s Fire.
BH: Oh, he sure does. What a player.
EI: I guess you have really been part of two great jazz worlds, Bertha. You were a very young observer of the Los Angeles ferment in the ‘50s, and then you came into your own career with the best of the NYC musicians of the ‘80s.
BH: It’s been a blessing to know all these great, great, great musicians!
“The Underappreciated Career of Bertha Hope” has my take on the albums discussed in this interview.