Among the small but well-informed coterie of eager to learn jazz heads, that I found myself mixing with in the early 1980s, one album seemed present in all our collections, namely ‘Song for My Father’ by pianist and composer Horace Silver. Some had bought it for the superb title track, which seemed to be heard everywhere in that Summer of ’83. Others had bought it purely for its great album cover, which (we later learnt) featured Silver’s father. Then there were the completists, eager to learn and earnest in knowing the all-important ‘who played the bass on that?’
Our jazz train-spottery was indeed rampant!
So what of the man himself. Well, he was born Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver in the September of 1928 in Connecticut. Mum was Gertrude, a local woman who worked as a maid and a regular church goer and member of a choir. His father was John, who had landed in the US as a young man, from Cape Verde, the Portuguese colony off the coast of West Africa, with the surname Silva, which he anglicised quickly .
Their son, Horace, had a love of music from a young age. At first, he played piano along to the folk music from Cape Verde, taught to him by his father.
‘He loved the folk music of Cape Verde. Mr. Nick Santos and Mr. Manuel Perry, friends of my dad who were Cape Verdean, played instruments also. Occasionally, they would hold a dance party in our kitchen on a Saturday night. The women fried up some chicken and made potato salad. The men would get whiskey and beer and invite all their friends, Cape Verdean and American blacks, to come and have a good time.’
From the age of 11, Horace began to get serious about being a full-time musician. By then he also played a bit of saxophone and was heavily influenced by the work of Lester Young. He played local pick-up gigs whilst still at school and once graduated, this quickly became his full-time job, with his early piano phrasing learnt from studying the work of some of the greats – Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Art Tatum and Nat King Cole.
A curvature of the spine, meant he failed his army medical, and this also gradually impinged on his sax playing, meaning he began to concentrate on the piano. Aged 18, he moved to Hartford, to take up the house pianist job, at a local night spot, ‘Club Sundown.’
One night, the saxophonist Stan Getz was booked as the main act. He enjoyed the style of Silver and the rest of the trio that backed him that night so much so that he recruited them to be his permanent backing, to go on tour with him. Later in 1950, Silver would go onto make his recording debut with Getz.
After a year of working with Stan, Silver was on the move and landed in New York. There he worked where he could, often getting the chance to sit in with his heroes, such as Lester Young. He also hooked up with Lou Donaldson with whom he quickly gelled. Lou had record contract with Blue Note, and in 1952 had dates booked in later that year. When he had to pull out however, label boss Alfred Lion, offered the studio time to Horace instead, and so began a beautiful friendship which last 28 years.
Silver’s reputation grew quickly and he worked with the top line of musicians of the day, such as Al Cohn, Sonny Stitt, Art Farmer, Clifford Brown, Milt Jackson and Miles Davis, with Horace contributing a fantastic solo on the track ‘Weirdo’ which they recorded together. The critics had noticed him too and Horace won the 1954 new star award from Down Beat magazine.
In the same year, he teamed up with drummer Art Blakey to co-found The Jazz Messengers, which over the years would go on to include a loose collective of various ‘up and comers’ and lead players. Those first records featured trumpeter Kenny Dorham, tenor man Hank Mobley and bassist Doug Watkins and were released under Silver’s name, though this eventually morphed into Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers.
Silver’s first hit ‘The Preacher’ appeared from these sessions, with the term hard bop being used to underline the gospel and R’n’B tinged music they offered up. Record sales were healthy, which in turn helped Blue Note first survive and then, thrive.
Heroin usage was rife within the Messengers however, of which Silver wanted no part, and this eventually led to him leaving and forming his own quintet, which already had a diary of confirmed bookings from promoters, impressed with his previous albums. Horace certainly had an ear for a tune, with numbers like ‘Senor Blues’ ‘Psychedelic Sally ”Nica’s Dream’ ‘The Jody Grind’ ‘Doodlin” ‘Opus de Funk’ ‘Filthy McNasty’ and ‘Sister Sadie’ all sealing the deal of him as a main player.
Critic Scott Yanow – ‘Horace Silver (won) over the crowds through his affable personality and all-action approach. He crouched over the piano as the sweat poured out, with his forelock brushing the keys and his feet pounding.’
Here’s Horace on the inspiration of those songs – ‘I’m inspired by nature and by some of the people I meet and some of the events that take place in my life. I’m inspired by my mentors. I’m inspired by various religious doctrines. Many of my songs are impressed on my mind just before I wake up. Others I get from just doodling’ around on the piano. When I wake up with a melody in my head, I jump right out of bed before I forget it and run to the piano and my tape recorder. I play the melody with my right hand and then harmonize it with my left. I put it down on my tape recorder, and then I work on getting a bridge or eight bar release for the tune.’
Albums that followed included like ‘Finger Poppin’’ from 1959 ‘Tokyo Blues’ in 1962, the aforementioned ‘Song For My Father’ in 1964 with Joe Henderson on tenor and Carmell Jones on trumpet, ‘Serenade to a Soul Sister’ in 1968 and his last quintet album for Blue Note ‘You Gotta Take a Little Love’ in 1969.
1970 saw Horace take a break from touring to be with his wife Barbara who he had married that year, with whom he had a son Gregory. Silver also dug deeper into a spiritual vibe. His records sold poorly as interest in jazz in general declined during the decade that followed and disbanded his quintet to concentrate on lyric writing used notably on what was to become the compilation ‘The United States of Mind’ which featured vocalists extensively. Gems from this period include his work with the vocalist Andy Bey on tracks like ‘I’ve Had a Little Talk With My Stomach’ and ‘Won’t You Open up Your Senses.’
Horace and his family moved to California from New York in 1974 and he recorded his final album ‘Silver and Strings’ for Blue Note. Cutting back on his touring to four months a year to concentrate on raising his son, he continued to release albums on his own Silveto label. Sales were relatively poor, but royalties from his previous work flowed in, including the use by the group Steely Dan of opening bars of ‘Song for My Father’ on their tune ‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.’ Released in 1974, it hit number 4 in the top 100, significantly the biggest hit they achieved. Added to that, the horn lines from the same Silver tune, can be heard on ‘Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing’ by Stevie Wonder on his 1973 album, ‘Innervisions.’
Horace signed with Columbia Records in 1991 and released the big band recording ‘It’s Got to Be Funky’ and then ‘Hardbop Grandpop’ on the Impulse label in 1996. His last studio record ‘Jazz Has a Sense of Humour’ was released in 1998. He was last seen playing in public in 2004 at the Blue Note jazz club in Manhattan, but by 2007, it was learned that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. He died aged 85 in New York in 2014.
‘I personally do not believe in politics, hatred or anger in my musical composition. Musical composition should bring happiness and joy to people and make them forget their troubles.’
Amen to that.
The Mumper of SE5
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