Here's a pop quiz: Write down the names of 10 songs composed by Horace Silver. (No, you can't go look at his albums . . . Well, OK, if you have to.)
"Song For My Father." "Cookin' At The Continental." "Senor Blues." "Blowin' The Blues Away." "Sister Sadie." "Peace." "Gregory Is Here." "The Hardbop Grandpop." "Nutville." "Doodlin'."
That's my 10. What's yours?
The point is, when you hear the name Horace Silver, you think of his unique, signature-bearing compositions, don't you? And if you're at all familiar with his music, naming 10 tunes, maybe even 20, is pretty easy. But even if Silver's name rings few bells, you've probably heard "Song For My Father," his 1964 hit that has all but become his theme song. "I have to play that or the people go home disappointed," he says.
Mostly due to his songs, but also via his dynamic, to-the-point piano playing and his evocative arranging style, Horace Ward Martin Taveres Silver has been a longtime member of the modern jazz elite. His major-league jazz debut with Stan Getz in 1950 led to his stints with Lester Young and Art Blakey, his recordings with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown, his more than 25 years as a Blue Note recording artist.
Any time is a fine time to celebrate the wondrous works of Horace Silver, but now is a better moment than most. As of this issue, the noted jazzman has been selected to the Down Beat Hall of Fame, where he now joins such past bandmates as Davis, Rollins, Blakey, Getz, Brown, Coleman Hawkins, Young and J.J. Johnson, all previously elected to this highest of jazz posts.
"Hey, this is a big deal," says the 68-year-old Silver of the honor, that typical upbeat lilt in his voice. "I finally got in, and it was before I died."
Deep down, to be sure, Silver is pleased. His whole metaphysical viewpoint--which he began to share with his fans and colleagues on a three-volume series of albums in the '70s called The United States Of Mind--is based around positive thinking. Thus, when asked how he feels in general, Silver responds, "Today is a good day. I've got a lot to look forward to, a lot more music to give the world and I'm excited about that."
His career, as you might imagine, has also brought him considerable pleasure. "It's gone pretty much the way I wanted it to, the way I dreamed that it would," he says during a chat from his ocean-view home in Malibu, California, where he's lived for 10 years. "I've gotten to work with many of my idols: Coleman Hawkins, Pres, Miles, Art Blakey. I'm a happy man."
When you interview Silver about his career, you naturally have to ask him for highlights. The first one he named was being hired by Getz in Hartford, 1950. "That got me started," he says.
Here's the backstory that leads up to that event. Silver, who was born on Sept. 2, 1928, in Norwalk, Conn., fell in love with music when he heard Jimmie Lunceford's band at the Rowton Point amusement park near his home. "I was flabbergasted and realized I wanted to be a musician," he recalls.
Silver was about 12 at the time, and he had been playing piano for a couple of years. But, like so many of us, he wasn't much of a practicer. In fact, he had wanted to quit. "But my dad wouldn't let me," he says. "He told me, 'You begged me for this piano and you wanted to take lessons, so you're going to keep on. You'll thank me for this one day,' And I did."
The exposure to Lunceford sparked Silver, and he began to take music seriously, practicing so much, in fact, that the neighbors "complained that I was playing too late at night."
Silver was first enthralled by the Caribbean [sic] folk music of the Cape Verdean Islands [near Spain] played by his father and friends at family parties, the black gospel vocals he heard at his mother's Methodist church and boogie woogie. "Before I could even read music, I copied note-for-note Earl Hines' 'Boogie Woogie On The St. Louis Blues,' Eddie Heywood's boogie-woogie version of 'Begin The Beguine' and Erskine Hawkins' 'Black Out.'"
As a teenager, when he also took up tenor sax for a while, he discovered pianists Teddy Wilson and Art Tatum ("One of my greatest honors was to have Teddy record two of my tunes on an album on Cameo Records"), saxophonists Hawkins and Young ("I loved Hawk, but I tried to play my tenor like Pres") and eventually the boppers: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and, of course, Bud Powell, the man who, along with Thelonious Monk, became his primary model.
All of these varied influences were rolling through the head and hands of the pianist when Getz arrived in Hartford to play a gig at a club called the Sundown, where he was backed by a local trio headed by Silver. Then tenorman liked the pianist so much that he hired him on the spot, and made him a member of his quartet for two years, recording three of Silver's tunes--two of which, "Split Kick" and "Penny," are available on Getz's The Roost Quartets.
Silver then moved to New York, and his career started to take off. He worked with Hawkins, and with Young, and made his first album for Blue Note, a trio date in 1953. Then in 1954, two members of the quartet he was leading at Minton's in Harlem--tenorman Hank Mobley and bassist Doug Watkins--were joined by trumpeter Kenny Dorham and drummer Blakey, recording under the name Horace Silver & The Jazz Messengers.
The band's name became simply the Jazz Messengers for a two-volume album recorded live at the Cafe Boemia in 1955, and then Blakey took over the name. But Silver kept Mobley and Dorham as his own tenor-trumpet team for a while, and was never sorry.
"I've played with a lot of front lines, and, for my particular taste, Hank and Kenny were the hippest, the slickest," he says. "Those cats played so well together, and individually their solos were great. They were such harmonic masters, the way they could make those changes."
In this period, Silver had a previously little-reported association with Parker. He worked with the alto giant on a dance job in Buffalo, N.Y. "Walter Bishop was sick and couldn't make it, and the others were Charlie Mingus and Kenny Clarke"--and Bird sat in a couple of times with the pianist's quartet that featured Mobley. Silver also sat in with Parker at the Club Baby Grand in Harlem. "Walter Bishop asked me if I wanted to play, and I told him yeah. Miles also sat in, so did Gerry Mulligan. That was a helluva set."
By 1956, Silver was a leader on record but rarely, if ever, in person. Then he found himself with a hit, "Senor Blues," off Six Pieces Of Silver, and suddenly he was in demand. The late booking agent/manager Jack Whittemore called him and said there was a club in Philadelphia that wanted him for a week's work. Silver declined, but not for long.
"I told Jack I didn't have a band, so he said, 'Well, why don't you put one together and go down there and make that money?'" Silver recalls. "So I hired Hank Mobley, Art Farmer, Doug Watkins and Art Taylor. We rehearsed, then went down and packed the place."
Suddenly, he was a leader. "The guy [in Philadelphia] wanted us back in two months. In the meantime, I got another gig and it snowballed. I had never wanted to be a leader, just a well-known sideman, but I felt it was my destiny."
Silver never looked back. For a time, his bands were ad hoc units--Mobley and Clifford Jordan were sometimes the tenorman, Farmer and [Donald Byrd] often held the trumpet chair. Then, in late 1958, he assembled one of his most lasting and satisfying combinations, headed by trumpeter Blue Mitchell and tenorman Junior Cook. The quintet was together until 1964 and made such memorable albums as Blowin' The Blues Away (1959), with "Sister Sadie" and "Peace," Horace-Scope (1960), with "Nica's Dream" and "Strollin'" and Doin' The Thing (1961), with "Filthy McNasty."
"As much as I loved Hank and Kenny, I gotta say this: Blue and Junior played more well-rounded than any front line I've had," says Silver. "I could write funky and they could handle that, solo-wise. A ballad, they could handle that. Hip, they could handle. I could depend on them and we had a lot of success."
But perhaps nothing like what happened when Silver employed saxophonist Joe Henderson and trumpeter Carmell Jones to play "Song For My Father," that infectious, loping Latin-funk-blues piece that pushed the similarly titled LP onto Billboard magazine's top 200 pop albums chart. As Silver himself says, he's got to play the number every night, which turns into a very real creative challenge.
"When you've played something a thousand times, the question I always ask myself is, 'What am I going to play on my solo?'" he says. "'What can I do that's different?' Sometimes, I come through and pat myself on the back. Other times, it's, 'Aw, I played the same old shit I've played before.'"
After Henderson and Jones, Silver hired a cast of now-luminaries for his quintets and recordings, including saxophonists Michael Brecker, Bennie maupin, Bob Berg, Ralph Moore and Red Holloway and trumpeters Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell and Brian Lynch. They have collectively appeard on such albums as Silver 'n Brass (1975), Pencil Packin' Papa (1994) and The Hardbop Grandpop (1996).
Michael Brecker spoke for many of Silver's sidemen when he assessed the value of working under the pianist's egis. "I spent a little over a year with Horace, and it was like a university of jazz," says Brecker, who played on a few tracks on In Pursuit Of The 27th Man (1972). "He taught me useful things, like how to shape my solos, how to say what I needed to say in a short period of time, how to present myself."
Much of that same information is now included in Silver's recent book, The Art Of Small Combo Jazz Playing, Composing And Arranging, which includes "seven compositions scored for quintet and a lot of musical philosophy."
In the early '80s, he formed Silveto Productions, issuing new albums like Spiritualizing Your Senses and Music To Ease Your Disease on Silveto Records, and Horace Silver: Live 1964, a collection of earlier unreleased material, on Emerald.
When asked about his compositional process, Silver said he mostly works spontaneously, and often in the morning. "I usually wake up with a phrase going through my head, and I'll either run to the piano and play it, or, if I'm on the road, I'll sing it into my tape recorder," he says. "Then, I'll try to expand the phrase into eight bars, find a suitable bridge, and I've got a song."
He's asked if he has favorite songs. "My songs are like my children. How can you like one more than another?" he says. "But I'm usually thinking about the more recent stuff, like 'Gratitude' [on The Hardbop Grandpop--see "CD Reviews" Nov. '96] or 'My Mother's Waltz' [on Pencil Packin' Papa], which is not in the style of the Horace Silver Quintet, but I'm a growing boy. I can't stay in the same groove all the time." Then he laughed.
Silver still has some goals, you bet. He wishes for more awareness of his music, and of jazz in general. "This music should be more popular. It's such a great American art form, so uplifting," he says. He'd also like to see a dance company like Alvin Ailey or the Joffrey Ballet choreograph some of his songs. "Take it on a world tour. That would be exciting."
Looking his life over, Silver is glad things happened the way they did, when they did. "I'm glad I was born when I was," he reflects. "Then, in New York, you could hobnob with all these dudes. Like, I got to know Monk pretty good. I'd go to his house sometimes, bring him a bottle of wine, and he'd sit and play tunes for me." Or when Silver wrote a tune called "No Smoking," based on Bud Powell's style: Powell heard Silver play it at Birdland and asked for a leadsheet. "It always made me feel good that he liked it," Silver says. "I've been blessed."
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