Horace Silver, 1928-2014
A peerless pianist and composer, he defined hard bop and nurtured many jazz greats
NEA Jazz Master Horace Silver, an extraordinarily creative pianist and composer who brought soulfulness, a rhythmic spring and what he called a “meaningful simplicity” to hard bop, died of natural causes this morning, June 18, at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. Silver was 85.
A mainstay of the Blue Note Records label throughout the label’s heyday—the early-’50s until 1980—Silver leaves behind a sizable and highly cherished body of work, highlighted by his 1965 album (and its evocative and addictively catchy title track) Song for My Father, which continues to turn up on lists of essential jazz recordings nearly a half century after its release.
Equally adept at delivering lithe, driving rhythm fests and the most tender and open of ballads, Silver’s work blurred the lines between straight-ahead, soul jazz, free, funk and other sub-categories of jazz. He incorporated strains of gospel, blues, Latin and African music into his own—his father was born in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of West Africa—and often injected strong touches of both wit and romanticism into his playing, which was both daringly cutting-edge and respectful of melodic and harmonic accessibility.
On his Facebook page, keyboardist Mike LeDonne paid tribute to Silver: “Horace put the fun back in the music. His was an approach that put dance up front once again like the old days but reached forward harmonically at the same time.”
Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silva was born in Norwalk, Conn., on Sept. 2, 1928. His early exposure to the folk music of his father’s homeland had a great impact on him—one of Silver’s most highly regarded albums, The Cape Verdean Blues, also came out in 1965—but Silver, introduced to jazz through the saxophonist/bandleader Jimmie Lunceford, first attempted the saxophone before finding his niche with the piano. Enamored of the blues and boogie stylists, as well as the sophisticated playing of Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson and Thelonious Monk, Silver turned professional in the late ’40s. He found his first major exposure in the band of Stan Getz in 1950, and moved to New York the following year.
Silver began working steadily as a sideman in the early ’50s, adding his piano to the music of Coleman Hawkins, Miles Davis, Oscar Pettiford, Milt Jackson, Hank Mobley, Clark Terry, Gigi Gryce, Al Cohn, Nat Adderley, Lester Young and Art Blakey, among others. He came to the attention of Blue Note’s executives during that period, recording on an album credited to Lou Donaldson, and with Blakey he co-founded the Jazz Messengers (Blakey would hold on to the group’s name long after Silver left). After recording a self-titled album for Blue Note in 1955 as Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers, which included one of his signature pieces, “The Preacher,” Silver signed as a leader to Blue Note and began releasing a string of albums for the label that consistently found praise among critics and a wide range of listeners.
As his star rose within the jazz world, Silver’s bands (much like Blakey’s) began to serve as breeding grounds for future greats—he nurtured the likes of saxophonists Bennie Maupin, Junior Cook and Hank Mobley, trumpeter Blue Mitchell and drummer Louis Hayes, among others. Other members of Silver’s bands included Joe Henderson, Charles Tolliver, Donald Byrd, Benny Golson, Art Farmer, Blue Mitchell, Stanley Turrentine, Woody Shaw, Dave Douglas, Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Brecker Brothers.
Song for My Father, which became Silver’s most enduring and popular work, was recorded in 1964 and released the following year. Inspired by a trip to Brazil and his mixed ethnic heritage—his father was of Portuguese descent, his mother Irish and African—Silver built the album around the title track, which drew on bossa nova and incorporated other elements of what would later become known as world music. It has since been covered dozens of times by a wide array of artists both within and outside of jazz. The followup album, The Cape Verdean Blues, expounded upon the same ideas and was also a major success for Silver. Other individual Silver compositions that have remained popular include “Sister Sadie,” “Nica’s Dream,” Señor Blues” and “Filthy McNasty.”
After leaving Blue Note in 1980, Silver launched his own label, Silveto. He also cut records for Columbia, Impulse! and other labels. Silver’s autobiography, Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty, was published in 2006.
In 2005, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) gave Silver its President's Merit Award. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 1995.