Horace Silver – The Life of a Hard Bop Hero

Famous for his contribution to the hard bop style of jazz which electrified the music scene in the 1950s, pianist Horace Silver played a central role in the rise to dominance of Blue Note records

You probably recognise his most famous composition Song For My Father but did you know that he was ‘discovered’ by Stan Getz and wrote the jingle for coca cola’s Tab drink?

Stay tuned for that – and the more serious business of his biography in jazz – next…

Born in Norwalk, Connecticut on the 2nd September 1928, Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver would become one of the most influential jazz pianists of the 1950’s and a vital innovator in the hard bop style that evolved out of bebop at this time.

During his school years Silver learned both tenor saxophone – playing in a style influenced by Lester Young – and piano.

His early piano studies were predominantly classical music lessons but he became interested in boogie-woogie and jazz, especially pianists such as Art Tatum, Nat King Cole, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell.

While these iconic jazz pianists initially had an impact on Silver’s playing, he quickly went on to establish his own style and vocabulary.

With a melody-first focus and deep grooves, his dazzling right hand melodies were set against heavier and darker sounding chords.

His innovations in the hard bop idiom would ensure his importance in the evolution of the jazz of the fifties and sixties, and his melodic and often funky compositions would find favour amongst audiences and fellow musicians alike, many of which would become jazz standards.

Dimitri Savitski, SAVITSKI, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Stan Getz Discovers Horace Silver

On graduating from St. Mary’s Grammar School in 1943, Silver found himself playing both tenor saxophone and piano on local gigs around his hometown.

When called up for military service, the US army deemed him unfit to serve due to excessive curvature of the spine. The condition also affected his saxophone playing and – luckily for us – pushed him to concentrate on the piano.

Three years later, now living in Hartford Connecticut, his trio took a regular gig at a nightclub. It was here that they backed the visiting tenor saxophonist Stan Getz who was was so impressed that he promptly invited them to tour with him.

Silver’s first recordings would be made with Getz and can be heard on the highly recommended The Complete Roost Recordings.

For those who know his later hard bop records, it’s a fascinating insight into his evolution as a musician.

After his year with Stan Getz was over, Silver switched to work with highly underrated alto saxophone player Lou Donaldson.

Steeped in the language of bebop and Charlie Parker, yet with a highly blues-infused edge, Lou Donaldson helped the young pianist gain a more in-depth understanding of the idiom, and refine his style.

The Blue Note Connection

Silver soon found himself as a sideman in the recording studio with Donaldson. Crucially, it was for Blue Note Records with whom he’d form a relationship that lasted 28 years and helped define The Blue Note Sound.

A further recording was planned for Lou Donaldson’s quartet in November 1953 but, when the saxophonist declined the date, it was offered to Silver who took the opportunity to record as a trio.

In yet another historically important move, the drummer on the session was none other than Art Blakey; he and Silver would go onto make some of the most influential hard bop records of the decade together.

The first of these would be billed as the Art Blakey Quintet with Blakey, Horace Silver, bassist Curley Russell, Lou Donaldson on alto and the rising star on trumpet, Clifford Brown.

Around the same time, two outstanding live albums were cut for Blue Note, A Night At Birdland Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 which give an indication of the prowess of all concerned and of what was to come.

Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers (1954-56)

Whilst the Jazz Messengers’ name is more commonly attributed to groups led by the drummer Art Blakey, the first appearance of it actually appeared as the title of Horace Silver’s Blue Note album recorded in November 1954.

Titled simply Horace Silver And The Jazz Messengers it features a definitive hard bop quintet of Horace Silver, Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, bassist Doug Watkins and Art Blakey at the drums.

The same quintet would record again for Blue Note a year later, this time simply as The Jazz Messengers, and with equally spectacular results.

Two live albums recorded at the Café Bohemia again prove what a vital force this band was.

A final album for Blue Note as The Jazz Messengers was recorded in April and May 1956 with a change in frontline with trumpeter Donald Byrd replacing Dorham.

This would prove to be Silver’s last recording with the Messengers, and he would leave the band to pursue his own career and start his own quintet, influenced in part by the prevalence of heroin use by some in the group.

During the parting of their ways, it was agreed that Blakey would continue with the name of The Jazz Messengers, and one of jazz’s most iconic groups was born.

Horace Silver The Bandleader

After parting company with The Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver set about forming his own band and, save for a brief session with Sonny Rollins in 1957, he never again worked as a sideman.

Personnel would come and go yet the pianist’s original compositions and strong, individual stylings at the keyboard would ensure a continuity of sound and identity that was uniquely his own.

Favouring the quintet line up with a saxophone and trumpet frontline, Silver would record prolifically for the next few years. Most of his output was released by Blue Note, although his first album with his own band, Silver’s Blue, was for the Epic label.

Silver Blue

Recorded over three sessions in July 1956 with either Joe Gordon or Donald Byrd on trumpet and Kenny Clarke or Art Taylor on drums, the album was a mixture of standards and three songs by Silver.

6 Pieces of Silver

For his next album later that year, 6 Pieces of Silver, the pianist was back with Blue Note.

Originally issued as 10” LP featuring Donald Byrd on trumpet, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, Doug Watkins on bass and drummer Louis Hayes, subsequent reissues would include bonus tracks featuring titles cut with tenor saxophonist Junior Cook and bassist Gene Taylor.

One of the pieces that marked the album out as something special was the first recording of Horace’s ‘Señor Blues’ which would become something of a jazz standard.

Song For My Father (1965)

Silvers group spent the early part of the 1960s as one of the most popular and in-demand groups on the US club scene.

It was also around this time that, in a nod to both his compositional prowess and elevated profile, Horace Silver wrote the music for the commercial of coca cola drink TAB.

This period culminated in the recording of the album Song For My Father in 1965 which is widely regarded as one of the most famous jazz albums of all time.

That Silver Sound

In a period marked by a steady flow of releases, each was notable for its fresh compositions written by the leader.

Whilst there were occasional jazz standards thrown in for good measure, the commercial and critical success of the albums would hinge largely on the original tunes, along with Silver’s idiosyncratic style at the piano.

In much the same way that Art Blakey’s band become a finishing school for the next generation of jazz greats, Silver too chopped and changed his frontline with regularity.

While each would contribute to the overall flow and sound of the band, none of them overpowered or disturbed the quintet’s trademark sound.

Silver and…

As the 1960s wound down, so too did Silver’s prolific collaboration with Blue Note Records.

Whilst the period bore a spate of magnificent albums that are now regarded as classics, his career from 1970 onwards would – partly through design – be a somewhat sporadic stop/start affair that rarely captured the spirit and sheer ebullience of his previous work.

Firstly, at the turn of the decade, he disbanded his quintet to spend more time with his family and to focus on composing.

Whilst he reconvened a quintet in 1973 with the Brecker brothers (Randy on trumpet and Michael on tenor), the band never really took off.

Then, in 1975, he began recording a series of collaboration-themed albums:

Silver ‘n Brass
Silver ‘n Wood
Silver ‘n Voices
Silver ‘n Percussion
Silver ‘n Strings Play the Music of the Spheres

The final one, Silver ‘n Strings, was recorded for Blue Note in 1978/79, closing yet another chapter in his rich and varied discography.

Spiritual Silver

As early as the 1950s Silver’s aversion to the drugs which plagued the jazz scene shaped his career, with the decision to leave Art Blakey’s ground.

His continued explorations of spirituality saw him form his own record label – Silveto – in 1980 which he said was “dedicated to the spiritual, holistic, self-help elements in music”.

Despite the well-meaning concept, the music was not a commercial success and folded some years later.

The Hardbop Grandpop

Throwing in the independent label towel in the early 1990s pushed Silver back to the major labels, this time Columbia where he made more traditional recordings playing original compositions.

With regular and not insubstantial income from his back-catalogue of compositions, the pressure to tour and record was all but gone, and the decade saw Silver on a much more relaxed schedule than before.

It didn’t stop him from releasing a selection of acclaimed albums including The Hardbop Grandpop (1996) and A Prescription for the Blues (1997).

The awards and acknowledgements continued to come, and in 1996 Silver was added to the Down Beat’s Jazz Hall of Fame as well receiving an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.

In 1997 ill health prevented the pianist to tour to promote his latest albums, but he continued to compose.

Silvers final album was recorded in December 1998, once again with some young lions of the day in trumpeter Ryan Kisor alongside Jimmy Greene on tenor, John Webber on bass and on drums Willie Jones III.

The resulting album released on Verve, Jazz Has A Sense Of Humour would prove to be Silver’s last studio date. It was critically well received and a fitting swan song.

The pianist’s last public performance was in 2004 in New York City at the Blue Note Jazz Club. In 2005 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded him the ‘President’s Merit’ Award.

Pianist Horace Silver passed away on the 18th June 2014 of natural causes.

He left behind an extensive recorded legacy that has transcended the idiom and proved able to stand the test of time over the decades.

Whilst (as with any composer) there are a few ‘hits’ which stand out, fans of the pianist are urged to dive deeper into his rich discography where there are gems nestled in pretty much every release!

In testament to his commercial nouse, his music still pops up in unexpected places; the use of his song Psychedelic Sally for yet another coca cola advert in the 2000s is just one such example!

Looking for more? Check out our recap of the most famous jazz pianists of all time, or dig into our list of hard bop greats.

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