By Peter Keepnews
Horace Silver, a pianist, composer and bandleader who was one of the most popular and influential jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s, died on Wednesday at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 85.
His death was announced by Blue Note Records, the company for which he recorded from 1952 to 1979.
After a high-profile apprenticeship with some of the biggest names in jazz, Mr. 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 (most of them East Coast-based and black) as warring factions. But Mr. 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 Mr. 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 gutbucket 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. But his output also included gently melodic numbers like “Peace” and “Melancholy Mood” and Latin-inflected tunes like “Señor Blues.” “Song for My Father,” probably his best-known composition, blended elements of bossa nova and the Afro-Portuguese music of the Cape Verde islands, where his father was born.
His piano playing, like his compositions, was not that easily characterized. 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, Mr. Silver emphasized melodic simplicity over harmonic complexity; his improvisations, while sophisticated, were never so intricate as to be inaccessible.
Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver was born on Sept. 2, 1928, in Norwalk, Conn. His father, who was born John Silva but changed the family name to the more American-sounding Silver after immigrating to the United States, worked in a rubber factory. His mother, Gertrude, was a maid and sang in a church choir.
Although he studied piano as a child, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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, Mr. Silver and the drummer Art Blakey formed a cooperative 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 Mr. 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.
Those compositions, beginning with “The Preacher” in 1955 — which his producer, Alfred Lion of Blue Note, had tried to discourage him from recording because he considered it too simplistic — captured the ears of a wide audience. Many were released as singles and garnered significant jukebox play. By the early ’60s Mr. Silver’s quintet was one of the most popular nightclub and concert attractions in jazz, and an inspiration for countless other bandleaders.
Like Blakey, Miles Davis (with whom he recorded) and a few others, Mr. Silver was known for discovering and nurturing young talent, including the saxophonists Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker; the trumpeters Art Farmer, Woody Shaw, Tom Harrell and Dave Douglas; and the drummers Louis Hayes and Billy Cobham. His longest-lived ensemble, which lasted about five years in the late 1950s and early ’60s, featured Blue Mitchell on trumpet and Junior Cook on tenor saxophone.
As interest in jazz declined in the ’70s, Mr. 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.
“I’m shooting for longevity,” he explained. “The road is hard on your body. I’m trying to get it all over with in four months and then recoup.” He said he also wanted to spend more time with his son, Gregory, who survives him.
In 1981, Mr. Silver formed his own label, Silveto. His recordings for that label featured vocalists and were largely devoted to what he called “self-help holistic metaphysical music” — life lessons in song with titles like “Reaching Our Goals in Life” and “Don’t Dwell on Your Problems” that left critics for the most part unimpressed.
Jon Pareles of The Times wrote in 1986 that Mr. Silver’s “naïvely mystical lyrics” made his new compositions sound like “near-miss pop songs.” On later albums for Columbia, Impulse and Verve, Mr. Silver returned to a primarily instrumental approach.
Mr. 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.”
Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silva 1928 - 2014