Horace Silver: A Reflection in Silver

Ed Hamilton profiles the legendary pianist, composer and bandleader

Horace Tavares Silver has been retired for some time, left his mountain top Malibu Peninsula home and was returned to New York for some well-deserved R&R. No more road trips to South America, Europe or Japan. No more “Frisco”, L.A., “The Apple”, Chi-Town, Detroit, or Philly. His son Gregory came and got Dad and said it was time to go home and really be retired. When I met Horace in 1974, Gregory had just been born and Horace was beaming like a new dad looking at his son through the new baby hospital glass. The scene was Howard Rumsey’s ‘Concerts by the Sea’---at the time, the most famous beach front jazz haven in Southern California next to ‘Shelly’s Manne-hole in Hollywood. It was the Spring of ‘74; Horace had returned after a 5 year absence, and his set reflected his inner joy of being a new first time father with a son.

70 years ago Blue Note Records was started by two German immigrants who loved jazz and believed that the music should be heard and preserved. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff collaborated and built the Blue Note vault of music that included the artistry of immortals Miles, Sidney Bechet, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, The Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and Horace Tavares Silver, from Norwalk, Connecticut.

Silver stayed with Blue Note Records for 28 years until the label was sold to Columbia Records and Lion retired to Cuernavaca, Mexico. In his recently released autobiography, “Let's Get Down To the Nitty Gritty” Silver had this to say about his bosses: "I always had a good relationship with Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, cofounders and directors of Blue Note Records. They liked me, and they liked my music and my writing. I never had to fight to get any of my compositions recorded."

His first instrument was tenor sax and he later switched to piano after getting hooked onto Jimmie Lunceford and his band. Horace said that after hearing the Lunceford band at 11 years old, he got married to his first wife--Lady Music. He would play hooky from school; leave a note for his father saying he was going to the apple. There he would get to 52nd Street and see anyone and everyone he wanted until he got a gig with Stan Getz that took him to New York, right into the Nitty Gritty of the jazz scene.

Throughout those Blue Note years, Silver wrote many themed compositions, including Portuguese, African, Soul, Mexican, Japanese, Nitty Gritty-Hard Bop, Indian Metaphysics, Native American Indian, Silver N' Strings, Silver N' Wood, Silver N' Voices, Silver N' Brass and Silver N' Percussion. Some of this exquisite music was found on an early album as a leader, “Six Pieces of Silver” (1956) including "Señor Blues," which later had lyrics sung by master vocalist Bill Henderson. Silver's early quintet was composed of Art Blakey, Donald Byrd, Doug Watkins and Hank Mobley; "Come On Home," "Doodlin'," "The Preacher," "Serenade to a Soul Sister," "Filthy McNasty," "The Gringo," "Mexican Hat Dance," "Tokyo Blues," "The United States of Mind--The Healin' Feelin" and "The Cape Verdean Blues" are all milestones that Silver says, thanks to God, have brought him lucrative royalties from their recordings by musicians throughout the years.

There are some great musicians who had their start with Silver, including Lou Donaldson, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Blue Mitchell, Junior Cook, Carmell Jones, Doug Watkins, Randy and Michael Brecker, Willie Jones, III and Ralph Moore. He's also had some great guest musicians--J.J. Johnson, Stanley Turrentine, Andy Bey, Ocie Smith, Eddie Harris, Roger Humphries, Roy Brooks and Joe Henderson.

After Blue Note was sold, Silver started Silveto Productions and Emerald Records, with some great assistance from Bill and Camille Cosby. The first album was “Guides to Growing Up” (Silveto, 1981), with Eddie Harris and vocalists Feather. I remember buying it from Silver, as he sold them out of the box in between sets at Catalina's in Los Angeles.

In our first interview he expressed his joyful anticipation of moving to California and his exhilaration in becoming a father with his son Gregory. Just before he returned to NY, we bumped into each other at Ruth Price's Jazz Bakery,and caught my former history student, drummer Willie Jones, III, who had recorded with Silver on “Jazz Has A Sense of Humor”.

We travel back to 1974 at Concerts by the Sea--Silver returning to L.A. after an absence of five years...

Ed Hamilton: It's been since 1969 for your last gig in L.A.

Horace Silver: 1970 was my last engagement in Los Angeles, at Redd Foxx's club.

EH: We got that straight for the books. My last time seeing you was at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach. Basically a lot of people have said you've been sick; said you had arthritis in the hands; they said you went off too far into Transcendental Meditation too heavy. What has kept Horace from coming to L.A..?

HS: That's very funny [chuckles].

EH: It really is; not being in touch with you, I hear a lot of rumors from other musicians and it's really good to catch you, so, I'd like for everyone to hear what you have to say; whether its been economic, physical duress, or what.

HS: It's just been the way things went down. I guess that's all I can say. I was out here in '70 at Redd Foxx's club and at the end of 1970 I broke up that band and decided to take a rest. I had just gotten married in September of '70 and I wanted to spend some time at home to be with my wife Barbara. So I decided I wanted to take some time off.

I started, in '69, writing The United States of Mind (Blue Note, 1970)--that three-part series/three record series, and I hadn't finished it, so since I got married, I'd take some time off from being on the road; spend it [time off] at home with my wife and finish writing the The United States of Mind. I had to write lyrics, melodies, arrangements and everything. I had to audition some singers and all of that. I decided I was gonna take about a year off and I was gonna finish up that music and record, which I did, and I stayed home about a year. I intended to come back to work in 1972, but then my son Gregory was born and I just couldn't seem to leave him.

EH: Was this your first child?

HS: Yes, very first one and I was kinda enthralled by him and kept putting it off. And I looked around and two years had gone by. So I said, "Wow, let me go on and get back out there." So I started up a new group and, as of March 1973, I went back to work and have been working ever since. I worked from March, 1973 to now, 1974, and I just haven't had a chance in '73 to get out here. It seems like every time I tried to get a booking in California I could get a couple of weeks in L.A. but not in 'Frisco. They were all booked up or vice versa. It's impossible to come out here for two weeks. I don't make any money. Transportation is very high--unless I have at least a month's work, it's impossible. I just had to wait for a time slot where I could get to more than one city in order to make a profit out of this tour. So we went to 'Frisco first and we went on to Vancouver last week and got two weeks there, which makes the cheese more binding.

EH: At the time you sat down to write the The United States of Mind, were you going into the philosophy of TM? Because I've kept up with most all your albums from that period I became aware of your music. I think that You Gotta Take A Little Love (Blue Note, 1969) seems to have been the initial album which may have catapulted you into that philosophy. That's when you started putting lyrics on the liners--onto the album covers--and your music changed just a wee bit--it differed from your previous work.

HS: That's a very good assumption because you're pretty close to right there. You know, I would say You Gotta Take A Little Love catapulted me into the The United States of Mind. I got interested in writing lyrics about that time and, well, became interested in Metaphysics and Indian philosophies, and Yoga philosophies. I have always been interested in health foods, vitamins; you know, the heath thing. So, I was trying to get the physical thing, the mental thing, and the spiritual thing altogether. I was doing a lot of reading, a lot of soul-searching, a lot of meditation; and I put it altogether and came up with the The United States of Mind, which deals with all of that which I just mentioned; dealing with the physical, the mental and the spiritual things.

EH: You sat down and started the The United States of Mind series and formed a new group. Why didn't you include name musicians? Prior to this album, you had been using musicians who had been around.

HS: You mean the The United States of Mind records?

EH: When I saw you in '69 you had...

HS: Randy Brecker on trumpet, Benny Maupin on sax, John Williams on bass, and I think I had Billy Cobham on drums.

EH: Would you say that was the last time you used name musicians? Out here in L.A. you're using musicians I never heard of; and I'm sure they have experience behind them. People are used to seeing you with heavyweights like Stanley Turrentine or Joe Henderson.

HS: I never worked with Stanley Turrentine. He just made a record with me--he's never traveled with me--he's a leader in his own right. So I couldn't hire him. He's got his own band; he just made a record with me.

EH: Well, I mean you're using younger musicians who are kinda unknown.

HS: Everybody I've used was unknown at one time. Blue Mitchell was unknown when I first used him; so was Junior Cook; all of these guys; so was Benny Maupin when he first came with me; so was Randy Brecker. You know all these guys were unknown when they first joined me.

EH: OK. We hit on the same thing; you look like the way Blakey was doing with the Messengers--taking young guys in, working with them, and when they've built a repertoire and got a name, they went out on their own. That seems like what you're doing.

HS: Yeah. I like to give young musicians a chance, providing that they're capable. I don't hire anyone just because they are young. I prefer to get young cats if they are capable and can play the music to my satisfaction. Usually, young cats are very cooperative because they are trying to get across and they give you 100% cooperation, whereas sometimes older guys are more set in their ways and want to do things their way instead of trying to interpret the music the way you [the leader] want it.
Not necessarily all are like that; some of them are. I mean, we all gotta get a start someplace. Stan Getz gave me my first break. Art Blakey my second. You know those two cats really helped me to get on out here. I try to do the same thing for the two reasons I mentioned; for that reason, give guys a break and get them out here. And to also have somebody who can play and will take direction.

EH: A small bio...Where is Horace from? Many people don't know.

HS: I’m from Norwalk, Connecticut.

EH: Was the 1950 gig with Stan Getz your first professional gig?

HS: Well, if you term first professional gig with a name musician. Well, I'd consider playing with professional musicians in Connecticut; but he was the first name professionally that I played with.

EH: 1974, what's happening with Horace Silver now? He's gone through “The United States of Mind”, phases one, two and three, and gone through many themes of music.

HS: The latest album since “The United States of Mind” series is an album called “In Pursuit Of The 27th Man” with...

EH: "Liberated Brother."

HS: Correct. "Liberated Brother."

EH: What's in store for the next album?

HS: I don't give away my secrets before they come out.

EH: I think you gave away some of them tonight [at Concerts by the Sea], playing "Accept Responsibility." Some of the new things you played tonight, will they be on the album?

HS: They probably will.

EH: Hope to catch you next time. Missed you before at Redd Foxx in '70; glad you're back, not sick. And I hope the two week stint here at Concerts by the Sea will be very beautiful for you. I hope you can get some creative ideas while you are here in L.A..

HS: Well, the weather out here and the people are very conducive to creativity.

EH: Will you ever move out here?

HS: That's a possibility--who knows?

EH: Tell me one other thing. Will you stay with Blue Note?

HS: I stay where the music is. If it's out here, I have to go. Everyone goes to New York 'cause that's where the scene is; and wherever the scene moves to, that's where all the cats have to go--if they want to be on the scene.

EH: Would you say the East Coast is more conducive to black musicians starting out than the West Coast? [West Coast Cool was mostly white musicians--Buddy Collette, Teddy Edwards, Howard McGhee, and Gerald Wilson were among the few blacks on the West Coast]. Or, which area would you say is more conducive for a black musician to get started?

HS: I don't think black has anything to do with it. You can start off anywhere. Some of the baddest cats came from some small towns. New York is a proving ground for many musicians, black, white, yellow, and I would say all the major cities--L.A., 'Frisco, Chicago, New York. But, I would say New York is a strong proving ground because there is a lot of competition there, and a lot of music is going on there. You can get out and hear a lot of music, which is inspirational. Like you go out and hear somebody cook, it makes you want to go home and be proactive--go home and try to play better inspires you to further yourself.

But that same thing can happen here in L.A., 'Frisco, or Chicago. But I would say New York is about the strongest right now. It's evident L.A. is becoming stronger because a lot of guys from the east coast are moving out here [Garnett Brown, Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard, Hubert Laws, Jimmy Smith, Kenny Burrell, Benny Maupin, Oliver Nelson, Benny Golson]. So, something must be happening here. The main thing is just that, for musicians who want to play jazz is to get on the scene wherever the scene is--if it's L.A., New York, Chicago, 'Frisco, wherever all the cats are. Because you know you can learn from association. If you are around all of the heavyweights, you can learn things from them either by asking questions or playing with them--or just by listening to them, getting inspired by them. You gotta be amongst the cats who are doing it so you can do it better.

EH: Thanks Horace, you sure got down to the Real Nitty Gritty.

Shortly after, Horace moved to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, down on the southern most point of L.A., overlooking the Pacific. and for 34 years watching the metaphysics of the waves of the blue Pacific composing his ever true love---Lady Music.

Horace Slver’s music panorama has always transcended into the positive nature of thinking. Transcendentalism, astutely recognized as TM has elevated him to an above the rim consciousness only achieved by the rare few. Horace’s music will always remain transcended through the interpretive playing of Taj Mahal, David Sanborn, DeeDee Bridgewater, and many others who will be blessed with the ethereal musical stylings of Horace Silver.

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Ed Hamilton