Remembering Horace Silver

Jul 1, 2014

One of the most influential and popular of jazz artists, Horace Silver, passed away on June 18 at the age of 85. Born Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver in Norwalk, CT in 1928, his father was an immigrant from the Cape Verde Islands. The creole rhythms from these islands were to have profound impact upon Silver's music and his successful career. 

Silver's early musical development was influenced by Earl Hines and Art Tatum as well as the bebop legends Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, however, the styles of pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk were to become favorites. While leading his own trio on the local club scene he backed up saxophonist Stan Getz in 1950 which led to Getz hiring him – an engagement that lasted for nearly two years. Thereafter, Silver moved to New York and began playing with musicians such as Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and with a trio that included bassist Percy Heath and drummer Art Blakey. He cut his first Blue Note album in 1952 and was named a new star for 1954 in DownBeat magazine. 

1954 also marked the year during which Silver joined with Blakey to form the Jazz Messengers. With such stellar members as Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson or Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley, the Messengers became a popular ensemble that was pivotal in establishing the emerging style of jazz known as Hard Bop. A rhythmically dense form with roots in gospel music, rhythm and blues and Latin beats featuring vigorous soloing, hard bop moved the foundation of jazz music from its decade-long immersion in the frenetic tempo of bebop toward a framework that was less confining for soloists and a sound that was more accessible to a burgeoning jazz audience. Silver's composition “The Preacher” from the album “Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers” was an early manifestation of soul jazz with its funky, gospel feel.

Blakey and Silver were to part musical ways in 1956 with Blakey retaining the Jazz Messengers name for his group and Silver leading his own quintet. Both of these men remained durable performing and recording artists for decades to follow and both of their groups were crucibles for emerging talent, affording younger musicians the opportunity to play with seasoned artists and to hone their individual styles.

The 1956 Blue Note album “Six Pieces of Silver” contained Silver's first hit - “Senor Blues”. Indeed, the number was so popular that Silver later wrote lyrics to it which were recorded with vocalist Bill Henderson, becoming one side of a 45rpm release that was found on jukeboxes across the land. Silver produced a list of musical characters: The Preacher, Senor Blues, Sister Sadie, Juicy Lucy, Sweet Sweetie Dee, Filthy McNasty and The Dragon Lady; and his prolific pen yielded numerous other captivating numbers such as the timeless “Peace”, the fanciful “Doodlin'”, his paean to the “jazz baroness” Pannonica de Koenigswarter “Nica's Dream” and the mellow mood of “Silver's Serenade”. Silver embraced the concept of “meaningful simplicity”, infusing his music with a blend of melodic and harmonic beauty and a rhythm that is irrepressible. His compositions also made frequent use of the “Latin tinge”or Afro-Cuban beats that had been around in jazz for a long while but had recently come into greater use through the association of Dizzy Gillespie with Chano Pozo in the late 1940s. Coupled with Silver's innate rhythmic sense and heritage this influence further enhanced his music. Compositions such as “Nica's Dream” and Ecaroh” are prime examples of this delightful element of his work. 

Silver's playing featured a strong, left hand percussive style supplying a rhythmic bedrock for minor key blues explorations or upbeat romps. From the late 1950s until early 1964 his quintet featured Blue Mitchell playing trumpet and Junior Cook at the tenor saxophone with Gene Taylor playing bass and either Louis Hayes, Roy Brooks or John Harris, Jr. at the drums. This was perhaps Silver's most vibrant group with exquisite horn work by Mitchell and Cook. Subsequent groups featured established and future great jazz names such as Joe Henderson, Stanley Turrentine, Benny Maupin, Carmell Jones, Woody Shaw, Charles Tolliver, Tom Harrell and the Brecker brothers. It was the the group featuring Carmell Jones and Joe Henderson that recorded the classic “Song For My Father” in 1964 – perhaps Silver's most popular composition combining an infectious blend of Brazilian rhythms and Cape Verdean folk music.

One of the most pleasing aspects of Silver's music is that he wrote lyrics that embellished many of his compositions. The 1965 session “The Cape Verdean Blues” incorporated rhythms of his father's native land with Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson and J.J. Johnson comprising a magnificent sextet. The album featured a number of catchy pieces such as the exuberant “Nutville”, the moody “African Queen” and another piece to which Silver wrote lyrics, “Pretty Eyes”. Vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater recorded an album of Silver's lyrics on her superb 1994 tribute “Love And Peace”. 

The key to Horace Silver's popularity over the years was the accessibility of his music. As with Cannonball Adderley's group, the exhilarating nature and rhythmic foundation of his compositions provided an entrance for new listeners to appreciate jazz music while performances simultaneously maintained a dynamic and vibrant improvisatory framework. This elusive key to jazz popularity and integrity was a hallmark of Silver's work; at times the beat was so insistent and entrancing that one might overlook the forcefulness of the soloists, but the essence of jazz music was always the centerpiece. Silver said “ Jazz is not background music. You must concentrate in order to get the most out of it. You must absorb it”. He offered music that yields exponential rewards for the listener. 

During the 1970s Silver entered a period of self-exploration that resulted in three albums, “The United States of Mind, Phase I, II and III”, delving into holistic approaches to living and featuring the vocalizing of Andy Bey. He toured and recorded through the 1980s and 90s – returning to a more straight-ahead approach during the 90s with his albums “Pencil Packin' Papa”, “The Hardbop Grandpop”, “A Prescription For The Blues” and “Jazz Has A Sense of Humor”. As ever, Silver's positive attitude was buoyantly reflected on these albums. He was recipient of numerous tributes and awards over the years – from the U.S. House of Representatives and Congress, the State of California and National Endowment for the Arts among them. He also established the Horace Silver Foundation to award scholarships to aspiring jazz musicians. His autobiography “Let's Get To The Nitty Gritty” was published in 2006. 

Horace Silver's place in jazz history is secure. From the evolution of hard bop and its continuing influence to his providing a framework for developing musicians, for expanding the jazz audience and, not least, for the good vibrations that abound in his music and continue to inspire upcoming generations of musicians and listeners alike, the man was a treasure. Peace.  


Selected Horace Silver discography (Blue Note Records except as noted):

A Night At Birdland with the Art Blakey Quintet – 1954

Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers – 1954/55

The Jazz Messengers at the Cafe Bohemia, Vol.1 and 2 – 1955

Six Pieces of Silver - 1956

The Stylings of Silver - 1957

Further Explorations by the Horace Silver Quintet - 1958

Finger Poppin’ - 1959

Blowin’ the Blues Away - 1959

Horace-Scope - 1960

Doin’ the Thing - 1961

The Tokyo Blues - 1962

Silver’s Serenade - 1963

Song for My Father - 1964

The Cape Verdean Blues - 1965

The Jody Grind - 1966

Serenade To A Soul Sister – 1968

Ya Gotta Take A Little Love - 1969

That Healin’ Feelin’ (The United States of Mind, Phase I) - 1970

Total Response (Phase II) - 1971

In Pursuit of the 27th Man - 1972

All (Phase III) - 1973

It’s Got to Be Funky, Columbia - 1993

Pencil Packin’ Papa, Columbia - 1994

The Hardbop Grandpop, Impulse - 1996

A Prescription For The Blues, Impulse – 1997

Listen to Chris Cooke's 1998 interview with Horace Silver

Live performance of “Song For My Father” with Bill Hardman, Benny Maupin, John Williams and Billy Cobham, Copenhagen, 1968: