Horace Silver Biography

Arguably one of the most popular styles of jazz in history, hard bop emerged in the 1950s around a tight-knit group of musicians on the Blue Note record label. At the forefront was pianist Horace Silver, whose life we dive into in this article…

Born in Norwalk, Connecticut on September 2,1928 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 musicians initially had an impact on Silver’s formative 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, any of which would become jazz standards.

Early Life & Career

Graduating from St. Mary’s Grammar School in 1943, Silver was 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, deciding to give up the instrument, Silver concentrated on the piano.

Three years later in 1946 the pianist moved to Hartford in Connecticut to take a regular gig at a nightclub. It was here that his trio backed the visiting tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, and Getz was so impressed with his trio that he invited them to tour with him.

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

After his year with Stan Getz was over, Silver would find himself working with alto sax player Lou Donaldson.

Steeped in the language of bebop and Charlie Parker, Donaldson helped the young pianist gain a more in-depth understanding of the idiom, and Silver would again find himself in the studio recording a quartet album with the saxophonist for Blue Note Records.

An important session indeed, as Blue Note would also become Silver’s label for the next 28 years.

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

Most notably, the drummer on the session was none other than Art Blakey, and the two musicians would go onto make some of the most influential hard bop records of the decade.

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.

Two outstanding live albums were cut for Blue Note, A Night At Birdland Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and these albums give an indication of the prowess of all concerned and i of what was to come. These albums are essential listening for anyone interested in hard bop and the evolution of post-bop jazz.

Horace Silver & The Jazz Messengers

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

Titled simply Horace Silver And The Jazz Messengers with a definitive hard bop quintet of Horace Silver, Hank Mobley on tenor saxophone, Kenny Dorham on trumpet, bassist Doug Watkins and 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. During the parting of their ways, it was agreed that Blakey would continue with the name of The Jazz Messengers.

Horace Silver as bandleader

After parting company with The Jazz Messengers, Silver set about forming his own band.

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

Silver would record prolifically with most of his output being released by Blue Note, although perversely his first album with his own band, Silver’s Blue, was for the Epic label.

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.

For his next album later that year, 6 Pieces of Silver, the pianist was back with Blue Note. Originally issued as 10” LP featuring a quintet of Silver, Donald Byrd on trumpet, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, Doug Watkins on bass and drummer Louis Hayes.

Subsequent reissues would include bonus tracks with 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 a jazz standard.

From here on in for the next decade or so there would be a steady flow of releases from the current quintet of the day, and each would be marked by fresh compositions written by the leader with maybe one standard thrown in for good measure.

The success of the albums would hinge on the tunes written by Silver along with his idiosyncratic style at the piano. While the sidemen would constantly change the quality of the music would remain constant.

His frontline horns of trumpet and tenor sax would feature some of the top flight players of the time, but while each would contribute to the overall flow and sound of the band none of them seemed able to overpower or disturb the quintet sound.

Consequently, it was Silver’s playing and writing that made the recordings so vital and memorable.

In a remarkable career Horace Silver made a spate of magnificent albums throughout the fifties and sixties that are now regarded as classics.

Qualitatively, there is little between any of Silver’s output of this period but in any discussion of the pianist’s work, the album Song For My Father is regarded as the pinnacle of Silver’s art and contribution to jazz.

Later career & awards

Silver’s career after the sixties was a somewhat sporadic stop/start affair that rarely captured the spirit and sheer ebullience of his previous work. In 1970 he disbanded his quintet to spend more time with his family and composing.

He reconvened a quintet in 1973 featuring the Brecker brothers, Randy and Michael on trumpet and tenor saxophone but the band never really took off.

1975 he began recording a series of Silver ‘n albums featuring the quintet along with other instruments. He recorded his last album for Blue Note, Silver ‘n Strings in 1978/79.

The following year he formed his own label Silveto which Silver said was “dedicated to the spiritual, holistic, self-help elements in music”. The label was not a commercial success and folded ten years later.

If a quite time for Silver, the nineties found him recording for a new label, Columbia Records, and making predominantly small group recordings playing original compositions.

In 1995 Silver received the ‘Jazz Masters’ award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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. In December 1998 he was once again in the recording studio with a young quintet featuring trumpeter Ryan Kisor, 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, and in 2005 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences awarded him the ‘President’s Merit’ Award.

Horace Silver passed away on June 18, 2014 of natural causes. He left behind a recorded legacy that has proved durable over the decades, and some classic tunes that continue to be played by jazz musicians today.

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