Horace Silver

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Horace Silver
Horace Silver by Dmitri Savitski 1989.jpg
Silver by Dmitri Savitski, 1989
Background information
Birth name Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silva[1]
Born (1928-09-02)September 2, 1928
Norwalk, Connecticut, U.S.
Died June 18, 2014(2014-06-18) (aged 85)
New Rochelle, New York, U.S.
Genres Jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, mainstream jazz, soul jazz, jazz fusion, post-bop
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, bandleader
Instruments Piano
Years active 1950–1999
Labels Blue Note, Silveto, Emerald, Columbia, Impulse!
Associated acts Art Blakey, Miles Davis, John Gilmore, Stan Getz, Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, Milt Jackson, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, Junior Cook, Blue Mitchell, Woody Shaw, Joe Henderson, Bob Cranshaw, Michael Brecker, Randy Brecker, Mickey Roker
Website Official website

Horace Silver (born Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silva, September 2, 1928 – June 18, 2014) was an American jazz pianist and composer.[1]

Silver is known for his distinctive playing style and pioneering compositional contributions to hard bop.[2] He was influenced by a wide range of musical styles, notably gospel music, African music, and Latin American music, and sometimes ventured into the soul jazz genre.[3][4]

Early life and career[edit]

Silver was born on September 2, 1928 in Norwalk, Connecticut.[5] His father, John Tavares Silva, was from the island of Maio, Cape Verde; and his mother, Gertrude,[6] was born in New Canaan, Connecticut, of Irish-African descent. His father, John, who worked in a rubber factory, taught him the folk music of Cape Verde.[7] John was born João Tavares Silva but changed the spelling of the family name to Silver after his son's birth.[8][9] Gertrude was a maid and sang in a church choir.[9]

Silver began his career as a tenor saxophonist but later switched to piano. His saxophone playing was highly influenced by Lester Young; his piano style, by Bud Powell. Silver's big break came in 1950, backing saxophonist Stan Getz at The Sundown Club in Hartford, Connecticut.[10] Getz liked Silver's band and took them on the road, eventually recording three of Silver's compositions. It was with Getz that Silver made his recording debut for the 1950 Stan Getz Quartet album, which featured Getz and Silver with Joe Calloway on bass and Walter Bolden on drums.[2]

In 1951, Silver moved to New York City, where he worked at the jazz club Birdland on Monday nights, when different musicians would come together and informally jam. During that year, he met the executives of the label Blue Note while working as a sideman. He eventually signed with them, remaining there until 1980. In New York, he co-founded the Jazz Messengers, a cooperatively-run group with Art Blakey.[11]

In 1952 and 1953, Silver recorded three sessions with his own trio featuring Blakey on drums and Gene Ramey, Curly Russell and Percy Heath on bass. The drummer-pianist team lasted for four years; during this time, Silver and Blakey recorded at Birdland (A Night at Birdland Vol. 1) with Russell, Clifford Brown and Lou Donaldson; at the Bohemia with Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley; and also in the recording studio. Silver was also a member of the Miles Davis All Stars, recording the Walkin' album in 1954.[12]

The album Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers was recorded on November 13, 1954 and issued in 1955. It was regarded as a milestone in the development of hard bop. It featured the mid-tempo blues "Doodlin'" and Silver's first hit "The Preacher".[2] During his time with Blakey, Silver rarely recorded as a leader; but, after splitting with him in 1956, he formed his own hard bop quintet, at first, featuring the same line-up as Blakey's Jazz Messengers, with 18-year-old Louis Hayes replacing Blakey on drums.[12]

Blue Note years[edit]

Silver at Keystone Korner, San Francisco in 1978

From 1956 onwards, Silver recorded exclusively for Blue Note, eventually becoming close to label boss Alfred Lion, who allowed him greater input on aspects of album production than was usual at the time. During his years with Blue Note, Silver helped to create the rhythmically forceful branch of jazz known as "hard bop", which combined elements of rhythm-and-blues and gospel music with jazz. Gospel elements are particularly prominent on one of his biggest hits, "The Preacher", which Lion thought corny, but which Silver persuaded him to record.[12]

While Silver's compositions at this time featured surprising tempo shifts and a range of melodic ideas, they caught the attention of a wide audience. His own piano playing easily shifted from aggressively percussive to lushly romantic within just a few bars. At the same time, his sharp use of repetition was funky even before that word could be used in polite company. Along with Silver's own work, his bands often featured such rising jazz stars as saxophonists Junior Cook and Hank Mobley, trumpeter Blue Mitchell, and drummer Louis Hayes. Silver's key albums from this period include Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers (1955), 6 Pieces of Silver (1956) and Blowin' the Blues Away (1959), which includes his famous "Sister Sadie". He combined jazz with a sassy take on pop through the hit "Filthy McNasty" (1961).[12]

In 1963 Silver created a new group featuring Joe Henderson on tenor saxophone and Carmell Jones on trumpet; this quintet recorded most of Silver's best-known album Song for My Father. When Jones left to settle in Europe, the trumpet chair was filled by a young Woody Shaw and Tyrone Washington replaced Henderson. Song for My Father (Cantiga Para Meu Pai) reached No. 95 on the Billboard 200 in 1965 and a year later The Cape Verdean Blues reached No. 130.[7]

As social and cultural upheavals shook the nation during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Silver responded to these changes through music. He commented directly on the new scene through a trio of records much later collected together under the title The United States of Mind (1970–72) that featured the spirited vocals of Andy Bey. The composer got deeper into cosmic philosophy as his group, Silver 'N Strings, recorded Silver 'N Strings Play The Music of the Spheres (1979).[13]

Between 1955 and 1980, Silver made more than twenty records for Blue Note, including The Jody Grind in 1966. Silver's bands often featured the trumpeter Blue Mitchell and tenor saxophonist Junior Cook. Four of his Blue Note albums were included on the label's "100 essential jazz albums" list issued in 2014 as part of its 75th anniversary celebration.[7]

Silver introduced many jazz musicians who would go on to become leading figures, including trumpeters Donald Byrd, Woody Shaw and Randy Brecker, saxophonists Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker and Benny Golson and the singer Andy Bey.[7]

Later years and death[edit]

Silver in Berkeley, California, 1983

After Silver's long tenure with Blue Note ended, he continued to create vital music. The 1985 album Continuity of Spirit (Silveto) features his unique orchestral collaborations. In the 1990s, he directly answered the urban popular music that had been largely built from his influence on It's Got To Be Funky (Columbia, 1993). Living surrounded by a devoted family in California, Silver received much of the recognition due a venerable jazz icon. In 2005, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) gave him its President's Merit Award. The SFJAZZ Collective focused on Silver's music for their 2010 season.[14]

In July 2007 his autobiography Let's Get to the Nitty Gritty: The Autobiography of Horace Silver was published by University of California Press. Reviewing the book for JazzTimes, Lee Mergner wrote, "[T]his autobiography [...] contains some excellent primary source material on the genesis of modern jazz. Silver's founding of the Jazz Messengers and his influential recordings for Blue Note ensure his special place in jazz history. [...] During the '50s when bebop and drug abuse went hand in hand, Silver was a veritable paragon of clean living, and that disparity helps to explain his professional disconnect from many of the players of that period." But, Mergner went on: "Silver's account of his life and career post-1970 is less captivating for the average jazz fan, in part because he was less active as a recording artist and also because he is most preoccupied with explaining his unique blend of spirituality and metaphysics—not that there's anything wrong with psychic experiences, mediums, astrology and dowsing."[15][16]

Silver died of natural causes in New Rochelle, New York on June 18, 2014. He was 85.[17][18] He was survived by his son, Gregory.[7]


Silver tended not to play up that he was proficient in Portuguese, or draw directly on his Lusophone musical upbringing. His 1965 hit, "Cape Verdean Blues", is the only clear rhythmic reference to his childhood home where his father and friends jammed, with traditional Capeverdean morna and coladeira as the main fare. In the interview for the liner notes to 1964's Song for My Father (Cantiga Para Meu Pai), however, Silver remarked of the title track, "This tune is an original of mine, but it has a flavor of it that makes me think of my childhood days. Some of the family, including my father and my uncle, used to have musical parties with three or four stringed instruments; my father played violin and guitar. Those were happy, informal sessions." Silver melded additional Lusophone influences into his music directly after his February 1964 tour of Brazil. Referring to "Song for My Father", Silver said, "I was very much impressed by the authentic bossa nova beat. Not just the monotonous tick-tick-tick, tick-tick, the way it's usually done, but the real bossa nova feeling, which I've tried to incorporate into this number."[19]

Silver's early influences included the styles of boogie-woogie and the blues. It included but was not limited to Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Nat "King" Cole, and Thelonious Monk. He liked to quote other musicians within his own work and would often recreate famous solos in his original pieces as something of a tribute to the greats who influenced him.[20]

Playing style[edit]

Silver's compositions, catchy and very strong harmonically, gained popularity while his band gradually switched to funk and soul. This change of style was not readily accepted by many long-time fans. The quality of several albums of this era, such as the The United States of Mind sequence (on which Silver himself provided vocals on several tracks), is to this day contested by critics. Silver's spirituality displayed on these albums also has a mixed reputation. Silver was the last musician to be signed to Blue Note in the 1970s before it went into temporary hiatus. In 1981 he formed his own short-lived labels, Silveto and Emerald.[14]


Silver's music influenced such pianists as Bobby Timmons, Les McCann, and Ramsey Lewis. His talent did not go unnoticed among rock musicians who bore jazz influences: Steely Dan sent Silver into the Top 40 in the early 1970s when they crafted their biggest hit single, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number", off the bass riff that opens "Song for My Father".[21] Writing for The Huffington Post, Chris Talbot described Silver as "an innately funky player with a keen sense of style", and said "he also incorporated the blues and gospel into his compositions, modernizing jazz at the same time those sounds were transforming other genres like rock 'n' roll and R&B."[5]

In an interview for NPR in 2008, jazz bassist Christian McBride said: "Horace Silver's music has always represented what jazz musicians preach but don't necessarily practice, and that's simplicity. It sticks to the memory; it's very singable. It gets in your blood easily; you can comprehend it easily. It's very rooted, very soulful."[7] Writing in The Guardian after Silver's death, Ronald Atkins described the pianist as "a supreme craftsman".[6] His obituary in The Daily Telegraph summarised Silver as "one of the most exhilarating and influential forces in jazz over the last 65 years. His infectious Latin and hard-bop inflected tunes provided an alternative to the languorous 'cool' epitomised by Miles Davis; yet, like Davis, many of his popular and memorable compositions have become 'standards' in the post-war playbook."[22]

BBC News said: "Horace Silver has been described as one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz."[23]

Ramsey Lewis, a pianist influenced by Silver, wrote that "Horace Silver was one of the hardest swinging piano players in jazz, both as a section player and a soloist. [...] Moreover, he was one of the finest human beings that walked the earth."[5]



  1. ^ a b "Distinguished Americans & Canadians of Portuguese Descent". Archived from the original on December 12, 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-09. 
  2. ^ a b c Martin Chilton (June 19, 2014). "Horace Silver, pioneer of jazz hard bop, dies at 85". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved June 19, 2014. 
  3. ^ Chris Kelsey. "Horace Silver biography". AllMusic. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  4. ^ Du Noyer, Paul (2003). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music (1st ed.). Fulham, London: Flame Tree Publishing. p. 140. ISBN 1-904041-96-5. 
  5. ^ a b c "Horace Silver Dead: Pioneering Jazz Pianist Dies At 85". Huffingtonpost.com. 2014-06-20. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  6. ^ a b Ronald Atkins (1928-09-02). "Horace Silver obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 2014-06-20. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Phil Gallo (June 19, 2014). "Horace Silver Dies: Hard Bop Jazz Icon Dead at 85". Billboard. Retrieved June 19, 2014. 
  8. ^ "Nação Cabo-verdiana enlutada com o passamento de Horace Silver" (in Portuguese). Government of Cabo Verde. June 20, 2014. Retrieved June 27, 2014. 
  9. ^ a b "Horace Silver, 85, Master of Earthy Jazz, Is Dead". The New York Times. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  10. ^ Feather, Leonard, in New Faces – New Sounds [album liner notes].
  11. ^ "Horace Silver (1928-2014)". JazzWax. 2014-06-19. Retrieved 2014-06-24. 
  12. ^ a b c d Jazz Discography Project. "Horace Silver Discography". Jazzdisco.org. Retrieved 2014-06-19. 
  13. ^ "Horace Silver Biography, The Official Website of Horace Silver". Horacesilver.com. 1928-09-02. Retrieved 2014-06-24. 
  14. ^ a b Bogdanov, V., Woodstra, C. and Erlewine, S.T. (2002), All Music Guide to Jazz. Backbeat Books, ISBN 978-0879307172
  15. ^ Mergner, Lee. "Jazz Reviews: Let's Get to the Nitty Gritty: The Autobiography of Horace". Jazztimes.com. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  16. ^ Grier, Miles. "Book Review: Let's Get to the Nitty Gritty: The Autobiography of Horace Silver". Academia.edu. Retrieved 2014-06-26. 
  17. ^ Hum, Peter (June 18, 2014) "Jazz Legend and Hard Bop Pianist Horace Silver Has Died", ottawacitizen.com; accessed June 28, 2014.
  18. ^ "Horace Silver dies at 85; pioneering jazz pianist and composer". Latimes.com. Retrieved 2014-06-19. 
  19. ^ "Horace Silver - Song For My Father_Booklet by HIGHRESAUDIO". ISSUU. Retrieved 2014-06-24. 
  20. ^ "Horace Silver Dead: Jazz Pianist Dies at 85". Variety. 2014-06-18. Retrieved 2014-06-24. 
  21. ^ "Horace Silver Main Page". Jazz Piano. Retrieved 2014-06-24. 
  22. ^ "Horace Silver obituary". Telegraph. Retrieved 2014-06-20. 
  23. ^ "BBC News - Horace Silver, top US jazz musician, dies". Bbc.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-06-20. 


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