Bertha Rosemond was born in L.A. in 1936 with perfect pitch and a natural talent for the piano. By junior high she was impressed with jazz, listening to Duke Ellington and Bud Powell LPs with her friend Billy Higgins. Eric Dolphy was her pal at City College and brought her by when Max Roach and Clifford Brown rehearsed at his house in 1954. The pianist in that group, Richie Powell, showed her a few jazz voicings. She soon learned Avery Parrish’s “After Hours” to play in the L.A. blues bars.
By the end of the decade, she had met and married Elmo Hope, and in 1961 they moved to the East Coast. There was one recording for Riverside (1961’s Hope-Full) that featured both Hopes—Bertha’s on three tracks—but Elmo died tragically young and Bertha settled into raising their children and playing gigs in the tri-state area. Her key associate from those years was probably little-known vibraphonist Doug Hawthorne.
In the early ’80s, Bertha met bassist Walter Booker and from there became more visible in New York music circles. Her pianist friends and influences then included John Hicks, Ronnie Mathews, and Larry Willis, all people she met at Booker’s Boogie Woogie Studios.
This fabled era is already a bit lost to the mists of time. The records are good, but you probably needed to be in the room to get the full impact: Hicks at Bradley’s, or Mathews at the Vanguard with Johnny Griffin, or Booker with the Junior Cook/Bill Hardman quintet at some forgotten late, late, late-night spot.
Bertha herself helmed a particularly fine example of this superb NYC music for Elmo’s Fire, a 1991 quintet date on SteepleChase featuring Cook and Booker. The repertoire includes several pieces by Elmo Hope and two Bertha Hope originals. Unlike the high-octane effect of many ’80s LPs with Booker or Cook, Elmo’s Fire breathes easy, animated by dance tempos and the superb pocket of drummer Leroy Williams. Quicksilver Eddie Henderson completes the all-star band with a trumpet that sounds just delighted to partner Cook’s dark, serious tenor.
Bertha is a generous soul: always looking to connect the dots within her community, frequently programming compositions from her social-musical set. Elmo’s Fire features her friend Sonny Fortune’s “For Duke and Cannon,” on which each of her chord voicings glows like a jewel. A comparatively unknown but excellent tenor player, Dave Riekenberg, is given a gentlemanly chance to battle Cook on “Bellarosa.”
In conversation, Bertha is charming and warm-hearted, but like any jazz master she can also cut to the chase. The title piece is a couple of Elmo Hope rhythmic calls on the changes to “After You’ve Gone.” I asked Bertha if she ever used the word “contrafact” to describe this process, and she replied, “Of course not. The only people who use that word went to a university to learn about jazz.”
There’s too little of Bertha on record, but at least we have Frank Lowe’s concert recording Soul Folks from 1998 (released in 2001 on No More). Lowe’s compositions are in the Ornette Coleman tradition and the band is flexible and swinging. Lowe extols Bertha as musician and mentor in the liner notes, dedicating “Ms. Bertha’s Arrival” to her and suggesting that she brings forth a color “somewhere between Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill.”
Bertha rarely played avant-garde music, so this date remains an anomaly. She attributes her success in this environment to so many hours spent watching the first rehearsals of Ornette’s original quartet at Billy Higgins’ house. The Ornette style defies the piano to some extent. I’ve studied everyone who’s tried it, from Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett to Geri Allen and Jason Moran, and I’m telling you, Bertha is absolutely killing it here.
Drummer Ralph Peterson is also rarely thought of as a free player but is just as perfect as Bertha. He and unsung bassist Steve Neil weave a magic carpet that starts in 4/4 but doesn’t need to stay there. Bertha told me that trumpeter Jack Walrath worked with Lowe a lot and it shows: These “precise” horn ensembles couldn’t have been achieved any other way.
Both Elmo’s Fire and Soul Folks include Elmo Hope’s “Mirror-Mind Rose,” first heard on Harold Land’s classic LP The Fox. Bertha’s version is a glorious hymn; Lowe’s version is as unrecognizable as Ornette’s “Embraceable You.” All of this music is on a continuum, and nobody knows that better than Bertha Hope.
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