Jazz pianist Horace Silver dies at age 85

Hard bop notable recorded exclusively for Blue Note Records over three decades

Horace Silver in an image from the sleeve of the Blue Note record Senor Blues - Cool Eyes.

Jazz musician Horace Silver, a composer known for pioneering hard bop, has died at age 85.

Silver, a native of Norwalk, Connecticut, was shaped by the Portuguese influence in the islands of Cape Verde, from where his family emigrated to the US.

Alongside playing with noted jazz musicians such as bassist Oscar Pettiford and drummer Art Blakey, Silver, who played piano and saxophone, recorded exclusively for Blue Note Records over three decades before founding his own label, Silveto Records.

Silver composed music featuring percussive, hard-driving beats that was inspired by his philosophy of holistic self-help, according to jazz critic Leonard Feather writing in his Encyclopedia of Jazz.


His most notable works include Song For My Father, inspired by Cape Verdean folk music, and gospel-driven The Preacher. His work also appeared on a number of Miles Davis’s albums, including 1954’s Walkin’.

National Public Radio said Silver’s son Gregory had called the station directly with news of his death. Attempts to reach Silver’s family were unsuccessful.

The composer and bandleader, one of the most popular and influential jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s, died yesterday at his home in New Rochelle, New York.

After a high-profile apprenticeship with some of the biggest names in jazz, Silver began leading his own group in the mid-1950s and quickly became a big name himself, celebrated for his clever compositions and his infectious, bluesy playing.

At a time when the refined, quiet and, to some, bloodless style known as cool jazz was all the rage, he was hailed as a leader of the back-to-basics movement that came to be called hard bop.

Hard bop and cool jazz shared a pedigree: They were both variations on bebop, the challenging, harmonically intricate music that changed the face of jazz in the 1940s. But hard bop was simpler and more rhythmically driven, with more emphasis on jazz’s blues and gospel roots.

The jazz press tended to portray the adherents of cool jazz (most of them west coast-based and white) and hard bop (mostly east coast-based and black) as warring factions. But Silver made an unlikely warrior.

“I personally do not believe in politics, hatred or anger in my musical composition,” he wrote in the liner notes to his album Serenade to a Soul Sister in 1968. “Musical composition should bring happiness and joy to people and make them forget their troubles.”

And Silver’s music was never as one-dimensional as it was sometimes portrayed as being. In an interview early in his career he said he was aiming for “that old-time gut-bucket barroom feeling with just a taste of the backbeat”. That approach was reflected in the titles he gave to songs, like Sister Sadie, Filthy McNasty and The Preacher, all of which became jazz standards.

His piano playing, like his compositions, was not that easily characterised. Deftly improvising ingenious figures with his right hand while punching out rumbling bass lines with his left, he managed to evoke boogie-woogie pianists like Meade Lux Lewis and beboppers like Bud Powell simultaneously.

Unlike many bebop pianists, however, Silver emphasised melodic simplicity over harmonic complexity; his improvisations, while sophisticated, were never so intricate as to be inaccessible.

Although he studied piano as a child, Silver began his professional career as a saxophonist. But he had returned to the piano, and was becoming well known as a jazz pianist in Connecticut, by the time the saxophonist Stan Getz - soon to be celebrated as one of the leading lights of the cool school - heard and hired him in 1950.

“I had the house rhythm section at a club called the Sundown in Hartford,” Silver told The New York Times in 1981. “Stan Getz came up and played with us. He said he was going to call us, but we didn’t take him seriously. But a couple of weeks later he called and said he wanted the whole trio to join him.”

Silver worked briefly with Getz before moving to New York in 1951. He was soon in demand as an accompanist, working with leading jazz musicians like the saxophonists Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young.

In 1953, Silver and the drummer Art Blakey formed a co-operative group, the Jazz Messengers, whose aggressive style helped define hard bop and whose lineup of trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums became the standard hard-bop instrumentation.

After two and a half years, during which Silver began his long and prolific association with Blue Note, he left the Jazz Messengers, which carried on with Blakey as the sole leader, and formed his own quintet. It became a showcase for his compositions.

Like Blakey, Miles Davis (with whom he recorded) and a few others, Silver was known for discovering and nurturing young talent, including saxophonists Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker; trumpeters Art Farmer, Woody Shaw, Tom Harrell and Dave Douglas, and drummers Louis Hayes and Billy Cobham.

As interest in jazz declined in the 1970s, Silver disbanded his quintet and began concentrating on writing lyrics as well as music, notably on a three-album series called The United States of Mind, his first album to feature vocalists extensively. He later resumed touring, but only for a few months each year, essentially assembling a new group each time he went on the road.

Silver was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 1995 and received a President's Merit Award from the Recording Academy in 2005.

Many of his tunes became staples of the jazz repertoire - a development, he said, that surprised him. “When I wrote them,“ he said in a 2003 interview for the website All About Jazz, “I would say to myself that I hope these at least withstand the test of time. I hope they don’t sound old in 10 years or something.”

Rather than sounding dated, his compositions continued to be widely performed and recorded well into the 21st century. And while he acknowledged that “occasionally I hear an interpretation of one of my tunes that I say that they sure messed that one up”, he admitted, “For the most part I enjoy all of it.”

Reuters/New York Times