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Horace Silver: Rachin’ Around

Horace Silver

Most people waking up from a dream in which Sergei Rachmaninoff and Duke Ellington met in heaven and shared their love of jazz would probably blame it on last night’s dinner, shake it off and continue with the day. Horace Silver is not most people.

The lion of hard bop and soul-jazz did indeed have such a dream, and he immediately saw its musical potential: His newly issued album Rockin’ With Rachmaninoff (Bop City) is an original cast recording of the musical he created in 1991 to depict this scenario.

What brought the two men together in Silver’s nocturnal imagination? In the dream, “they both admired each other’s talent, each other’s music,” Silver recalls, “and Duke took [Rachmaninoff] on a tour of heaven to meet all these jazz greats that have died and gone there. Such as Louis Armstrong, and Mahalia Jackson for the gospel part of it, and Muddy Waters for the blues part of it.”

Obviously a thorough grounding in both jazz and its origins would be necessary for Russian émigré and classical pianist Rachmaninoff, but by the end of the Duke’s tour, “Rocky” is swinging like he’s been doing it all his life.

Silver swears he has no idea what inspired this dream-“The day before, I wasn’t thinking about Duke Ellington or Rachmaninoff or anything. Farthest thing from my mind”-but during the project’s early stages, he learned something that gave his dream a bit more substance: “When I had this dream and I was going to write this stage production, I went into this music shop, and I saw a book on Rachmaninoff’s life. So I bought it, and in it, it said that Rachmaninoff dug jazz, and that he didn’t play it in public, but at home he would fool around with it and try to play it. So I said to myself, ‘If he digs jazz, I betcha he digs Art Tatum!'”

Rockin’ With Rachmaninoff does not, however, contain Silver’s speculations on what such a musical meeting would sound like. “A lot of people, they think, ‘Well, Horace has taken some of Rachmaninoff’s music and transformed it into jazz,'” says Silver, but doing that didn’t feel right: “I don’t believe in trying to emulate somebody else’s style. I got a style of my own. And I don’t want to try to emulate Thelonious Monk’s style. First place, I don’t think I could do it, you know! Who could?”

Thus, apart from the lyrics praising past jazz greats and stray references to Russia, the CD of Rockin’ With Rachmaninoff delivers a vigorous hard-bop workout with catchy melodies and joyful solos-pure Silver.

Of course, Silver conceived Rockin’ With Rachmaninoff as much more than just a CD. To help realize his musical-theater ambitions in 1991, Silver enlisted Tom Bradley, who was then mayor of Los Angeles. Billy Taylor, a former college classmate and friend of Bradley’s, was giving a concert at the Biltmore that His Honor would be attending. Silver put together a package of records produced by his own label, Silveto, as a gift for the mayor, and enclosed a letter. The letter explained the concept behind Silver’s musical and concluded with an offer: “‘If you could help me to get it put on,’ I said, ‘I will donate my services free to your favorite charity. You’ll have to pay the rest of the people scale, whoever puts it on.’

“Two weeks later I got a call from his secretary that he wanted to see me, and I met with him and Valerie Fields of the Cultural Affairs Department, and they both helped me to get it put on. They got some businesspeople to put up a few bucks. It wasn’t no elaborate production-the dancers made their own costumes and we had slides and stuff, but we didn’t have no elaborate stage settings and backdrops, that kind of stuff.”

The narration written by Silver and read by Chuck Niles explained the story; Donald McKayle choreographed the dance numbers.

The show ran for a weekend in a small Hollywood theater, and while the Los Angeles Times praised the show, Silver says, “Nobody ever said ‘Well, come on, let’s continue on with this thing, and expand it, and put it on for longer than a weekend, like a Broadway play.’ So I said to myself, ‘I’m going to take the band and singers in the studio and record this music for posterity, ’cause it should be preserved.’ It was a good band, and good singers, and I wanted to get it down on tape.”

Rockin’ With Rachmaninoff languished for over a decade in Silveto Records’ archives, as Columbia, GRP Impulse and Verve all passed on releasing the record. Now, Bop City has taken a chance. For Silver, the release doesn’t just resurrect a performance he’s quite happy with-“I’ve been playing it about once a day”-but also documents “a step forward, a giant step forward, to go from just writing singular tunes for record sessions and for gigs-I had to put together these tunes and have them connect and have a meaning behind them and write the proper narration and whatnot. So it was an important step upward in my career.”

And even more than a decade after it first came to fruition, Horace Silver is not going to stop following his dream.