The cloud of confusion and rumor thickens around his head.
"Yes, you know he has arthritis. There's no telling how much longer he'll be able to play."
"Rheumatic fever. Notice his playing. He can't control his fingers any more."
"It's a central nerve condition, definitely. Notice the jerky movements of his body. Sometimes he can hardly straighten up."
These remarks were floating around the Chicago club where pianist Horace Silver played a recent engagement. They stem from an incident of about 19 months ago just after he had completed another Chicago date and had returned to New York. A popular Chicago disc jockey triggered the initial spurt with the simple radio announcement of impending hospitalization!
"Horace Silver is ill. There seems to be some trouble with his hands. He has returned to New York for examination and treatment. The group may disband."
For gossip mongers and natural worriers, who embellish as they spread their news, this was more than enough. For well over a year now, according to these people, each engagement Silver played has been tragically close to his final performance.
This has resulted in an unsolicited cloak of protection for the pianist that often comes close to strangling him.
Visiting entertainers have been known to pester Silver into changing clothes between sets when his band suit became damp with perspiration. Many times he has been excluded from after-gig festivities because it was felt that he needed to rest. His performance is often given the clinical eye, and someone will suggest that "Horace is working too hard." This opinion advances the theory that Silver is frantically spending his all in his race against time.
It is true that the slightly built Silver maintained a steady, sustained drive to reach the top of his profession. It also is true that he is not willing to relinquish this eminence now that he has achieved it.
He belies both his delicate appearance and his New England upbringing by the intensity with which he tackles his work and an energy that seems almost beyond endurance. Although baseball has practically usurped the phrase, the only words that adequately describe Silver's approach to the piano are "he digs in."
Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver has come a long way from Norwalk, Conn., where he was born Sept. 2, 1928. He grew up as an only child. An older brother was grown and married before Horace was born. He began taking piano lessons early; however, there was no great artistic urge at that time. He had met a girl slightly older than he, and she played the piano. So how else could a 12-year-old convince the lady of his eye of his interest than by going along to piano lessons?
"I wasted the first two or three years," Silver says. "I didn't want to practice. I wanted to start swinging right away. After about two years, I started playing boogie-woogie by ear, and that sort of stimulated my interest."
This interest led to a desire to learn the fundamentals of music, and Silver began taking the first real step toward a career.
"I started hanging out with older musicians," he said. "One fellow who played on the Teddy Wilson kick gave me a fake-book of standard tunes with the chord changes at the top. At that time I didn't know anything about chord changes. I could read, and I could play by ear, but I didn't know anything about formulating chords, and I didn't know what intervals made up the chords."
This book and one record pushed the teenager along the road toward jazz.
"The record was Grooving High by Bird and Diz," Silver relates. "This was the first bop record I ever heard, and it really gassed me. I knew I was really going to have to take care of business to play like that."
By this time he was in high school and his interest in music had led him to join the school band. Piano lessons were not given, and Silver was given a tenor saxophone, which he immediately liked. Yet his love for the piano had to be fulfilled. For months he skipped gym classes and sneaked off to the empty auditorium to practice on the piano.
During his sophomore year in high school, the music director was faced with a problem. The baritone saxophone player had been graduated. The director tagged Horace for the chair, and he reluctantly learned to play the horn when the instructor took away the school's tenor saxophone. But his tenure with baritone was short-lived-Silver bought his own tenor. And all the while he was woodshedding with the piano.
"I had to study mostly from records," he said. "There were only a few cats in our town who blew hip. Down in the basement we had one of those old windup Victrolas. I used to put on Teddy Wilson's records and slow it down and try to copy off the changes and chord structures.
"It didn't always work. Like, I couldn't cop nothing from Art Tatum records. He was too fast even with the record slowed down."
The first professional job is recalled with hilarity by Silver:
"Boy, it was a riot:just rhythm section and another fellow playing tenor. The drummer didn't have a bass drum, cymbals, or trap. He just played the snare. We only had about four tunes. We used to go up to Stanton to play for dances. When we'd run through our four little tunes, then the tenor saxophone player and I would play 'After Hours' all night."
Upon graduation from high school, Silver felt drawn toward New York City and the major jazz figures who were merely names on record labels for him, but insecurity held him in Norwalk. Then, at 19, he became seriously ill.
Draft board examination had disclosed that he had a curved spinal column. He was classified 4-F. Horace remembers his immediate reaction to the medical report:
"I thought, 'Solid.' I was glad I had the thing because I didn't want to go anyway. Besides it didn't bother me none, so I was satisfied."
But a year later, it was discovered that things were not to be "solid" after all. Silver recalls the symptoms:
"It was pretty weird. I lost control of my limbs. My arm would jerk or my leg would jerk, and there were pressures on the nerve centers, and I was having trouble thinking and behaving rationally. Boy, for a while there, I though I was wigging out."
After trying several specialists, he went to a chiropractor who treated the malformed area and subsequent recurrence of the trouble. There was no cure. The damage was done some time in his childhood and if detected at that time, could have been corrected.
Treating this illness cost all the money Silver had saved for the trip to New York; he returned to local gigs. On a club date in Hartford, Stan Getz was the guest artist. Getz was so impressed by the men in the combo that he hired the entire rhythm section. Horace said that without this single break, he might still be in Norwalk, suffering cold fee, afraid to try his wings in New York.
After a year's touring with Getz, Silver went to New York to wait out his 802 union card.
"I worked little weekend-oh, oh, scratch that out. I just remembered I wasn't supposed to do that. But if I had been supposed to, I would say I worked weekend gigs for six months."
Then, at 23, a still awe-struck Silver joined one of his idols, Art Blakey, and the Jazz Messengers.
"I don't know," Horace grinned. "These fellows were my idols, just people I had read about and heard on records, so I was scared to death. I overplayed, trying to impress them. I remember I would be doing OK, then one of the Big Cats would walk in, and I'd start thinking, 'Oh, Lord, I really got to make it right,' so as a result, I would tense up, and I would goof."
Gradually he overcame this problem and began settling down into what has become the distinctive Silver sound.
By 1955, he felt ready to head his own group. He has undergone countless personnel changes. Within four years, more than 13 musicians have been in his employ, though the group has always been a quintet. The Silver alumni include such notables as Art Farmer, Donald Byrd, Hank Mobley, Clifford Jordan and Louis Hayes. His current group includes Gene Taylor, bass; Blue Mitchell, trumpet; Junior Cook, tenor saxophone, and Roy Brooks, drums.
"Roy Brooks is a helluva drummer," Silver said. "He's got soul and fire and that extra something that all good drummers have. You've got to play, with Roy Brooks kicking you in the behind."
The group's bend toward flunky blues is its most obvious trademark. Even Horace's tune titles have that down-home ring.
"Well, I write the way I feel, and I play the same way," he said. "I am very fond of the blues because that's where it all began. I do plan my titles a little. Of course, I name a tune for whatever the music reminds me of, but I also think in terms of lyrics. I name the tune something that won't have to be changed in case someone decides to put a set of lyrics to it."
He is reluctant to mention names of places where he prefers working.
"I like to play in soulful joints. I like places where people let their hair down and get with the music. Philly has some crazy jazz fans. They get right in the music with you."
This type of acceptance is not limited to Philadelphia or even to this country. When the quintet made a European tour, the reception was warm almost to the point of embarrassment. There were prolonged standing ovations at times and always the deafening choruses of "encore."
In this country, Silver won the Down Beat critics New Star award in 1954 and has made a respectable showing in subsequent jazz polls throughout the industry.
Today, Silver is playing with more freedom and enthusiasm than ever before. The foreboding about his hands is fading. In spite of the fact that 98 percent of the rumors are erroneous, they do have some basis in fact.
"Right after our European trip, actually while I was in Chicago, I began having trouble with my hands," he explained. "It was very painful for me to play, and I couldn't manipulate the fingers as I once could. To tell the truth, I was scared to death.
"My father had tried to convince me to learn another trade when I was a child, but music is my whole life, so I don't know anything else. For a while there, I thought I might not be able to play professionally as I wanted to. Thank God, I found a doctor, right in New Haven, who cooled me out and now my hand is 90 percent improved."
What is the ailment?
"It seemed that I had sprained a tendon in my wrist," he said, "and was developing a slight case of rheumatism on top of that. For a while, they believed it was arthritis, but it wasn't. For many months, I took treatments almost every day. I didn't go on the road. Now I can travel more, although when I'm in New York I still take treatments twice a week."
Silver has a light philosophical attitude regarding his hand and spine afflictions:
"Well, the spine thing. I can't do anything about that. When I feel an attack coming on, getting nervous and jumpy, I just go get a treatment and that straightens me right out. But this hand business, that sort of bothers me. But I believe in this doctor, he's a wonderful cat, and I believe he can overcome that, too."
Meanwhile, swinging around the country on the tide of his string of hits, Silver continues to record only two albums a year. Most of his recorded tunes are originals, and he is busy creating enough music for just two albums. He does much of his writing in his comfortable efficiency apartment in New York City.
Horace is a bachelor, and his quarters reflect the carelessness of that set. An expensive tape recorder stands upended, cluttered with months-old magazines, on top of a huge grand piano. Records, tapes, radios, and mementos are usually strewn about. Numerous photographs, paintings, and sketches of himself presented to him by admirers are on display. The Down Beat award occupies a place on the mantle.
He quickly points to his 10th anniversary silver record plaque, presented by his recording company, Blue Note.
Silver will invite guests to join him in a snack of natural whole wheat bread spread with butter and crunchy peanut butter. The drink is bachelor's coffee sweetened with unrefined sugar, which has the appearance of a mixture of cement and sand. If the guest doesn't like sugar, he can have honey for sweetening.
Silver offers no excuses or explanations. This is his habitat, and he expects friends to accept him and his tastes. He doesn't believe in stage manners.
I'm just myself, that's the only way you're going to win in the end anyway. Just sit down and be you."
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