Horace Silver dies; pianist and composer helped define hard-bop jazz


Jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver is seen here in the 1980s. He died June 18 at 85. (David Redfern/Redferns)
June 19

Horace Silver, a trailblazing pianist and composer who was a primary developer in the 1950s and 1960s of the style of jazz known as hard bop, marked by catchy melodies and relentless rhythms, died June 18 in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 85.

His death was announced by Blue Note Records, for which he recorded many of his most important albums. He had been in deteriorating health for several years, but the cause of death was not disclosed.

In 1953, Mr. Silver and drummer Art Blakey teamed up to form the Jazz Messengers, one of the most influential groups in jazz. Mr. Silver’s earthy, blues-drenched compositions became a key part of the band’s repertoire and helped define a musical era.

“His work as a pianist, composer, and leader of quintets became pivotal in the jazz of the late ’fifties,” jazz historian Martin Williams wrote in his 1970 book “The Jazz Tradition.”

When other jazz musicians were becoming more and more esoteric, reaching levels of musical abstraction where few listeners would follow, Mr. Silver remained grounded in the traditions of gospel and the blues. You could always hum his tunes and tap your toe to the beat.


Horace Silver in an undated photo. (Echoes/Redferns)

“They got so sophisticated that it seemed like they were afraid to play the blues, like it was demeaning to be funky,” Mr. Silver told Newsday in 1994, describing his populist musical approach. “And I tried to bring that. I didn’t do it consciously at first. But it started to happen.”

In dozens of recordings for Blue Note in the 1950s and ’60s, he combined long-standing musical traditions with the harmonic advances of bebop — the intricate jazz introduced in the 1940s by saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Mr. Silver’s music sounded casual and spontaneous, but in fact it was carefully composed and arranged, with riffing horn parts and room for instrumental solos.

His easily recognizable but hard-to-classify music led critics on a search for a proper term to describe it. The called it “soul jazz” and “funk” before settling on hard bop.

“Horace Silver’s music has always represented what jazz musicians preach but don’t necessarily practice, and that’s simplicity,” the Grammy Award-winning bass player Christian McBride told NPR in 2008. “It gets in your blood easily. You can comprehend it easily. It’s very rooted, very soulful.”

Many of Mr. Silver’s tunes, including “Nica’s Dream,” “Dood­lin’,” “Señor Blues” and “Filthy McNasty,” have become jazz standards, recorded hundreds of times by others. His music also found popularity beyond the world of jazz, and his 1964 composition “Song for My Father,” became a minor pop hit. The tune’s Brazilian-influenced, loping bass line was borrowed wholesale by Steely Dan for the rock group’s 1974 hit “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”

His compositions alone would put Mr. Silver in the front rank of jazz history, but he was also an important bandleader who helped propel the careers of dozens of major jazz musicians, including trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Joe Henderson.

As a pianist, Mr. Silver was known for his raw, impassioned performances, as sweat dripped from his face and his hair whipped in the air. With his left hand, he punched out a driving bass line that kept the pulse moving while he improvised infectiously melodic solos that danced above a solid rhythmic framework.

“I dreamed my dreams of becoming a great and famous musician, playing and traveling all over the world,” he wrote in his 2006 autobiography, “Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty.”

“I said to myself, ‘One of these days, I’m going to make records. And when the people put the needle down on the record and play, about a quarter of an inch in, they will say, ‘That’s Horace Silver — I recognize his style.’ ”

Horace Ward Silver was born Sept. 2, 1928, in Norwalk, Conn. His father was from Cape Verde, then a Portuguese colony off the western coast of Africa, and had anglicized his name from Silva. When Mr. Silver was baptized, his family added two more names, making him Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver.

His mother, who died when Horace was 9, introduced him to gospel music at a Methodist church. His father was an amateur musician who played Cape Verdean folk songs.

Mr. Silver studied piano in his youth and began his professional career in Connecticut as a saxophonist before returning to the piano. In 1950, saxophonist Stan Getz heard him at a Hartford jazz club and invited him to join his band.

After moving to New York, Mr. Silver performed with an array of stars, including saxophonists Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins and the young trumpeters Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, who was an early member of the Jazz Messengers.

Brown and Mr. Silver appeared on “A Night at Birdland,” a three-volume recording from 1954 that featured several of Mr. Silver’s compositions and went a long way toward defining the hard-bop style.

After leaving the Jazz Messengers, Mr. Silver recorded celebrated albums including “Six Pieces of Silver” (1956), “Blowin’ the Blues Away” (1959), “The Cape Verdean Blues” (1965) and “The Jody Grind” (1966). He moved to California in the 1970s and explored various spiritual paths, which were reflected in his music at the time.

His marriage to Barbara Dove ended in divorce. Survivors include a son.

In the 1990s, Mr. Silver had a late-career renaissance with well-received albums that returned to the style he had pioneered in the 1950s.

He was named a jazz master by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1995. He was also one of the last three survivors of Art Kane’s famed “Great Day in Harlem” photograph for Esquire magazine in 1958. The others are Benny Golson and Sonny Rollins.

‘’We don’t have any Charlie Parkers on the scene, or Art Tatums or Miles or Dizzies, as far as I’ve seen,’’ Mr. Silver said in 1996 after a film about the photo was released. “These guys are gone, and they haven’t been replaced with anyone of that caliber. . . . Those with style will be remembered.’’

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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