“If somebody had put a gun to my head and told me that I had to either choose composing or playing the piano I would have chose composing,” says hard-bop pioneer Horace Silver, speaking from his Malibu, Calif., home. At 75, the pioneering pianist is semiretired from the music he has played for six decades. Silver has a tough time remembering dates, yet he can recall episodes and events that shaped one of the pivotal careers in the history of jazz.
What’s funny is the man doesn’t consider himself a pioneer; he’s self-effacing to a fault. It’s as if he has no idea how influential he is on younger generations still kicking out the hard bop and soul jazz. It’s as if he didn’t have anything to do with writing the classic tunes “Senor Blues,” “Doodlin’,” “Song For My Father,” “Blowin’ the Blues Away,” “Jody Grind,” “Sister Sadie,” “Tokyo Blues,” “Filthy McNasty” and “Peace.”
It’s no stretch to say that Silver belongs in the same league as composers Duke Ellington, Tadd Dameron and Thelonious Monk. Among living jazz composers, his tunes are among the most-often played, with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter among his few peers in that regard.
“He has an identity that sets him apart,” says Detroit pianist and composer Teddy Harris. “On his albums you will rarely see material from other composers. He’s from the soulful school; he doesn’t have the technique of Oscar Peterson, but who does? But what he does well is keep the music swinging, and that is want jazz is all about. He’s one of a few jazz musicians whose fans can’t wait unit his next album comes out.”
Lately, Silver hasn’t been composing, which doesn’t seem to bother him at all.
“I have such a backlog of compositions. For years I would wake up in the morning with tunes in my head, and I would go to the piano and put them down on tape and I would try to title them. So I got so much stuff on the shelf already that God must have said, ‘Well, Horace, I have given you enough music. You got a closet full of music that you haven’t used yet so I’m not going to give you any more until you use what you have got,’” Silver says jokingly.
“Song for My Father,” a 1964 tune inspired by his dad, is by far Silver’s most recognized work.
His pop — a guitarist and violinist — was from the Cape Verdean islands off the coast of Africa, and he loved singing the folk songs he grew up with, songs he wanted his son to perform.
“I didn’t care to do that because the songs only had about three chord changes and they didn’t excite me. But when I went to Brazil I sat in with some of the Brazilian musicians. I got turned on by the bossa nova rhythms, and when I came back home to New York I said I had to write me a tune that had that rhythm. So I started fooling around at the piano and I came up with this melody. I put it on the tape, and when I played the tape back I discovered the bossa nova rhythm sounded like the music that my father was trying to get me to play. So that was why I called it ‘Song for My Father.’ And he appreciated it, but he still would have liked for me to take one of the authentic Cape Verdean songs and turn it into jazz.”
Silver was born in Norwalk, Conn. As a kid, he inherited his parents’ appreciation of music. His mother loved musical theater and Broadway and often took the young Horace to shows. She died when he was 9, but the impressions stayed.
He also studied classical piano. His music instructor tried to get him into a good music school to become a classical pianist. But Silver had none of it. He wanted to play jazz. He liked the simplicity and bluesy quality of boogie woogie and admired swing-era pianists Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson.
At 14, he authored his first jazz tune. “Pearson Eyes” was inspired by bebop pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and saxophonist Charlie Parker. Silver was on his way.
At Norwalk High School, Silver played tenor sax in the Allen Burr and his Music Makers band and emulated saxophonist Lester Young, which gained him a reputation as the Lester Young of Connecticut. (In later years, he played with Young, but never told of his sax hero worship.)
After high school, Silver moved to Hartford and hooked up with saxophonist Harold Holt. Holt’s trio had steady work; Silver was pulling in $50 a week.
By 1950 Silver had formed his own trio. He met sax great Stan Getz and backed him at a show.
“After that gig he told us that he would call us but we didn’t take him seriously,” recalls Silver. “We thought he was just being considerate. But two weeks later the phone rings and it was him saying that he wanted us the join him for a two-week gig at the Club Harlem in Philly. We took the gig. I ended up staying with him for about a year.”
But Getz was a junkie and would often blow the trio’s earnings on drugs. When the other band members got frustrated and quit, Silver stayed on; he considered Getz his ticket. He was right.
“I was getting to know big-named jazz musicians, and I was getting into the clique. So I said I was going to stay whether I was getting paid or not because I felt it was where I needed to be to get recognized and known.”
Silver met bassists Tommy Potter and Charles Mingus, drummer Roy Haynes, vibraphonist Terry Gibbs and trombonist J.J. Johnson. Johnson joined the band for two weeks, but Getz didn’t pay him.
“J.J. was furious. He grabbed Getz and slammed him against the wall. He said, ‘Motherfucker, if you don’t pay me I’m going to kick your ass.’ So Getz got scared. At the time he had a station wagon. He piled all of us into it drove us at 4 o’clock in the morning over to his father’s home to borrow money to pay J.J.” Silver laughs at the memory. Then he adds, “We never got paid.”
After leaving Getz in 1952, Silver worked regularly at New York’s Paradise Bar and Grill on 110th Street. There he met alto saxman Lou Donaldson who invited him to participate in a Blue Note recording. During the session, Silver met another man key to his future, Blue Note records’ founder Alfred Lion. Their friendship lasted 28 years.
“Alfred called me one day. I was supposed to make a third record with Lou. But Alfred told me that Lou couldn’t make the date. He never told me why Lou couldn’t make it. I don’t know if they had a fight or what. Alfred asked me to make a record. I was lucky because I had been composing a lot of tunes.” He released Horace Silver Trio, an album that was a sort of blueprint for hard bop.
Drummer Art Blakey appeared on that album. At the time, Blakey had a semi-big band ensemble that performed dance music and was searching for a pianist. Blakey hired Silver and they collaborated from 1952 to 1956.
Silver informed Lion that he wanted to expand. His blues-based tunes required a wider range of musicians. So Silver and Blakey enlisted tenor man Hank Mobley, trumpeter Kenny Dorham and bassist Doug Watkins. The landmark Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers solidified hard bop. The sound was a muscular take on bebop — with the blues and gospel lingering in the shadows — and it resonated through the jazz world; in fact, it’s still echoing today. Two of the tunes, “The Preacher” and “Doodlin’,” became classics.
“We did the first album and it came off well,” says Silver. “Then we did another one, and we decided to stay together because we were compatible. So we decided to keep the music going, and we called ourselves the Jazz Messengers. We never thought that we were making history. We just played what we liked and what we felt.”
Eventually, Silver formed his own groups. Blakey transformed the Jazz Messengers into a veritable finishing school for future bandleaders.
Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Silver continued recording for Blue Note, but left after his contact expired. He started a label (Silveto) and released five albums, including Continuity of Spirit, Music To Ease Your Disease, No Need to Struggle and Guides to Growing Up. These records showed Silver straying from hard bop with a more spiritual and holistic purpose — and experimenting with large ensemble formats. He struggled with the label for years before signing with Columbia where he returned to his hard bop roots and scored two ’90s hits with It’s Got to be Funky and Pencil Packin’ Papa. He subsequently signed with Impulse Records, delivering The Hardbop Grand Pop and Prescription for the Blues, and then with Verve to release Jazz Has a Sense of Humor.
Failing health had slowed him, and in 1999 he developed blood clots in his lungs. Being on the road, he says, was hard on his body and he reduced his touring schedule significantly.
Now, six decades after writing his first tune, Silver enjoys the serenity of his days. Life in Malibu, it seems, is transcendent for the venerable jazzman. He accepts a weekend gig occasionally, but mostly attends tribute concerts given in his honor like the one he’ll attend in Detroit.
If time is any measure — and jazz is constantly recharging its batteries — Silver has consistently written songs that last.
Horace Silver will be at the Detroit Historical Museum (Woodward at Kirby, Detroit) on Saturday, June 19, from 6 to 9 p.m. for a dinner-concert tribute. Teddy Harris will conduct the Jazz Hand Orchestra through his and Dennis Wilson’s arrangements of Silver’s music. For information, call 313-875-0289.Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]