Jazz innovator Horace Silver dies at 85

Gregg Reese | 6/26/2014, midnight
Horace Silver, the innovative bandleader, composer and pianist who brought a grounded earthiness to the “hard bop” genre of Jazz ...
Horace Silver

Horace Silver, the innovative bandleader, composer and pianist who brought a grounded earthiness to the “hard bop” genre of Jazz in the 1950s, has died of natural causes at his New Rochelle, N.Y. home. He was 85.

Born to a Portuguese father (from Cape Verdean island of Maio) in Norwalk, Conn., circa 1928, Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silva absorbed the Caribbean folk rhymes of his father’s homeland, while remaining rooted in the Gospel traditions of his Baptist church-going mother.

Initially a tenor saxophonist in the style of Lester “Prez” Young, he later switched to the piano. Among the giants he credited with influencing his own keyboard style were Nat “King” Cole, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and Teddy Wilson. His development included apprenticeships with Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, and Art Blakey before he founded his own band, the Horace Silver Quintet, which transitioned into the Jazz Messengers. Silver was at the forefront of a movement that built upon the Blues, Gospel, and Rhythm and Blues heritage of many of the Black musicians performing at the time.

This lineage was reflected in the titles of many of the tunes he composed, such as “The Preacher,” “Sister Sadie,” Señor Blues,” and “Song for My Father,” a Bossa Nova infused composition dedicated to his father’s Cape Verdean roots (a photo of the elder Silver graces the album cover) that has gone on to become a Jazz standard.

“Song for My Father (translated from the Portuguese “Cantiga Para Meu Pai”),” in particular has had a long-lasting impact on popular music, because the Jazz/Rock group Steely Dan used its piano riff for the introduction of its 1974 hit single “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” Elements of the song show up in the horn phase in Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” Musical passages from the Horace Silver repertoire may be found in tracks by the seminal Funk group Earth, Wind, and Fire, and the British new wave band The Style Council.

Renowned for his writing and arranging ability (he was unique among other practitioners in the Jazz idiom in that much of his catalogue is comprised of original material), Silver was no less accomplished as an instrumentalist. Unable to emulate the effortlessly overwhelming technical prowess of his idol, Art Tatum, his keyboard styling nonetheless could shift from percussive rhythms reflecting the characteristics of the African musical legacy to the lavishly melodic, often within the span of a few bars in the same tune. In this, he was a pioneer in the “Hard Bop” transition and laid the foundation of the Funk convention that transformed popular music in the mid to late 1960s, and was a major influence on the piano styling of musicians who followed him including Les McCann and Ramsey Lewis.

His status as an inspiration may also be measured by the individuals he nurtured as a bandleader or in recording sessions. These included such notables as trumpeters Randy Brecker, Donald Byrd and Woody Shaw, and saxophonists Michael Brecker, Benny Golson, and Joe Henderson, all of whom went on to notable careers as bandleaders and recording artists.