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Dave Douglas: What He Learned From Horace Silver

Unspoken lessons

JazzTimes asked me to write about the lessons I learned from Horace Silver, as one of the many musicians who have significant memories of the man. I’m grateful for the opportunity. I’m grateful to have been on the planet at the same time as Mr. Silver, and to have drawn personal inspiration from him. The world is a little bit less groovy with his passing.

I only got to do one “season” with Horace Silver, which lasted about six months in 1987. In the band were vocalist Andy Bey, saxophonist Vincent Herring, bassist Brian Bromberg and drummer Carl Burnett. Recent clips on YouTube show evidence of this band. I had not heard the music since those days and it was illuminating to revisit it.

It’s difficult to condense into a few words how much a person can learn from just being around someone as masterful as Horace Silver. Andy and Carl had been with Horace for some time; Vincent, Brian and I were new guys. We all learned from him in various ways, both on and off the bandstand.

After leaving the band I remember writing a tune called “Unspoken Lessons,” reflecting my feelings about being in it. Horace rarely lectured or gave verbal instructions. His guidance was in the music, on the bandstand, in the heat of battle.

His accompaniment would nudge you toward where he felt things should be, but you had to live up to his level of soulfulness and expression. Very occasionally he would pull me aside and say something about the music. More often his thoughts would be about life, about what my plans and intentions were, what I thought about certain philosophers, where I thought life was leading.

There was a spirituality to Horace and his music. Being around his house, you just picked that up. Most mornings, he would blast the music of composers like Scriabin, Ravel and de Falla on old LPs. The songs he was writing at that time were explicitly about healing and making the most of our time on this Earth. The older pieces in the book were equally connected: “Filthy McNasty,” “Sister Sadie,” “Señor Blues” and

“Nutville” each sprouted just as clearly from that same earthy ground and were rooted in soul, expressing the spirit as it is found in everyday life. “Song for My Father,” which we played in almost every set, was still a burning personal tribute for Horace. He instilled it with fresh imagination and energy in every performance.

There was never an “off” night. Everything was laid right out there in the music.

A few other important things I gleaned from being around Horace Silver:

Horace Silver was a master programmer of sets. It was really important to him that each set tell a story; that familiar material be mixed in with more challenging new compositions; that the set have an arc with a high point and low point in terms of intensity. He was really keen on how the audience perceived each tune as well. He was adamant that the melody and inner parts be played clearly and forthrightly. As long as that was taken care of, there could be a lot of room for spontaneity and improvisation.

Horace was a master at quoting tunes, and his way of doing it was always hilarious and unexpected. As many times as we played “Song for My Father,” he quoted a different tune every time-never the same one twice. These would be folk melodies from the deepest recesses of collective song memory. They would be one of those melodies that just make you sit back and think, “What is that?!” The effect was never cheap, pandering or corny. It was always earthy, soulful and promoted a feeling of joy, communion and collectivism.

During my time in his band, Horace was a stickler for good voice leading. He once-probably more than once-said, “You young cats got the wrong message from Coltrane!” What he meant was that we thought improvising was about sticking as many notes as you could into one chord. For him, what was truly hip was how you got from one chord to the next: voice leading. To Horace Silver, Lee Morgan and Blue Mitchell were the epitome of hip. And hipness was the whole point.

We played from handwritten charts, some of which had been in the book for years.

They were dog-eared and marked up. I tried to memorize as much as I could because I would get confused trying to follow the various D.S. and coda markings. About halfway through the tour, Horace told me that Woody Shaw had memorized the book in an afternoon. Woody didn’t have great eyesight, so he took the book and memorized each bar so he wouldn’t have to read it on the bandstand. This is a lesson that has stayed with me always. Memorize.

All these years later, when I hear one of Horace Silver’s recordings it reminds me to sit up and play right. His music is infectious in the best possible sense. Musicians will be playing it forever.

Dave Douglas is a renowned trumpeter, composer and educator, and the owner, operator and curator of the Greenleaf Music label. Visit him online at and

Originally Published