Elmo Hope was born on June 27, 1923, in New York City. His parents were immigrants from the Caribbean and had several children. Elmo began playing the piano aged seven.
He had classical music lessons as a child, and won solo piano recital contests from 1938. Fellow pianist Bud Powell was a childhood friend; together, they played and listened to jazz and classical music. Hope attended Benjamin Franklin High School, which was known for its music program. He developed an excellent understanding of harmony, and composed jazz and classical pieces at school.
At the age of 17, Hope was shot by a New York policeman and doctors reported that the bullet had narrowly missed his spine. Six weeks later, after Hope had been released from the hospital, he appeared in court. The judge freed Hope of all the charges, after which Hope’s attorney described the shooting as an “outrage”, and the charges as “an attempted frameup”. Hope’s recovery was slow, and he did not go back to school. Instead, he played the piano in an assortment of dance halls and other establishments in the city.
Hope and Powell met fellow pianist Thelonious Monk in 1942, and the three spent a lot of time together. This was interrupted in March 1943, when Hope enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army.
After leaving the Army, Hope played in many bands and eventually started playing Jazz as part of a quintet led by trumpeter Clifford Brown and alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson. He worked with Blue Note records and had his own jazz trio for recording. He appeared on recordings with Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Donald Byrd among others.
Unfortunately, he developed a drug problem and ended up in prison. He was unable to play in New York City clubs after his release from prison and began touring with Chet Baker and moved to Los Angeles. He began recording with many jazz musicians in LA, but came back to NYC in the early 1960s. He performed regularly until his death in 1967 in New York City from pneumonia. Hope, Bud Powell, and Thelonius Monk were considered by their contemporaries to be influences on each other early in their careers, and all, therefore, helped affect the development of jazz piano. He released 15 albums as a frontman and almost as many as a sideman through his career.