Sounds from Rikers Island

elmo hope rikers island002

Here is a link to a recent AP story on Melinda Hunt’s inspiring work to identify the unnamed dead buried on Hart Island.  Her research overlaps with some of our JLP research.  A number of veterans of 821 Sixth Avenue dug graves on Hart Island while incarcerated on Rikers Island.  Among them were the pianists Sonny Clark and Elmo Hope.

On August 19, 1963 a group of musicians now called the Elmo Hope Ensemble cut an album entitled “Sounds from Rikers Island.”  It features Hope on piano, Lawrence Jackson on trumpet, Freddie Douglas on saxophones, John Gilmore on tenor, Ronnie Boykins on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.  Earl Coleman and Marcelle Daniels also contribute vocals on a couple of tracks.  The premise of the band is that they are all veterans of the prison on Rikers; a few of their careers were stunted by doing time.  It’s an excellent recording reissued a couple of years ago by Fresh Sound Records of Spain.

The liner notes by Nat Hentoff are remarkable.  On this blog I’ve raved about Whitney Balliett’s jazz annals.  The only thing separating Balliett and Hentoff is volume; Balliett documented jazz farther and wider, Hentoff’s career moved on to politics and other topics.  But one thing Hentoff did better than his friend Balliett is cover the drug scene.  He did it with a similar style, using direct quotations to powerful effect.

In these liner notes Hentoff describes how Elmo Hope was clean from heroin for seven years until 1961 when he started using again.  The he quotes Hope at length:

“All that time I was off (drugs) I worked hard.  Everybody can tell you I worked hard.  But jobs were hard to get and harder to keep.  Some of the guys I worked for even seemed disappointed that I didn’t goof.  Yet I stayed straight.  But there were so many disappointments and so much scuffling and personal problems besides.  So I got my problem again.  I’m going to try to kick again.  It might be too late.  I might have to pay more dues.  But I know I can’t get back to where I ought to be if I don’t stop entirely.  Some guys wear the stuff well.  At least, they can function while they’re on.  Me, the minute I take the first taste, my troubles start.  And with all the other tensions going on, I know I’m going to fall apart if I don’t get off.  Music is the most important thing in life to me.  And yet I’ve been goofing that life away for nothing.

“These days I’m out on the street with no crib.  And there’s a new breed using now.  I sit in one of those basement apartments and I see guys around me who don’t even have a dream, man.  They’re real bitter people.  I don’t want to get like that.  But where do I go?  I need some analysis.  I need something to help me straighten out.  But with what money?  And if I stay with the habit, sooner or later I’ll get busted.  And then, I could get put away for a long time.  Now what sense does that make?  Putting a man away when, if you tried to help him, he could still create.  He could still be a credit to himself and everyone else.  The only crime I commit, man, is reaching for the bag.  And when I want to stop that, where do I turn?  And you can see, even with all this pressure, I’ve got something going.  I’ve got my own thing musically.”

Elmo Hope died less than four years later at the age of forty-three, his life and career and series of starts and one final stop too early.

One day I hope all of Nat Hentoff’s jazz writings from all the myriad sources – magazines, newspapers, books, liner notes – can be assembled in one volume, or a set of two volumes.

-Sam Stephenson

Comments are closed.