On Horace Silver

Horace Silver, whom we lost yesterday, believed that worthwhile music arises from feeling. He thought that to be true to himself, he had a responsibility not to let fashion or artifice deflect him from what his feelings dictated. Fortunately for him, and for us, he had the skill and the imagination to transmit his feelings Horace Silver # 2through his pen and his fingers. By the early 1950s, the top flight of modern jazz musicians had absorbed the theories and methods of bebop. Many were at the outer limits of what their technique could accomplish in expressiveness.

Silver came along and helped to establish that bebop’s harmonic sophistication was not at odds with an old-fashioned love of melody or the inborn human need to connect with rhythm. That’s why the simplicity and honesty of “The Preacher” reached so many people in their hearts and their solar plexuses. Here’s that recording by the group that Silver co-led with Art Blakey, The Jazz Messengers.


That’s the first of two pieces by Horace Silver and the Messengers that you will hear in the course of this post. It brought to mind something I wrote for a 2000 compilation CD on the Savoy label. The two-disc album was called The Birth of Hard Bop. It was made up of music recorded in 1956 by groups under the leadership of Donald Byrd, Lee Morgan and Hank Mobley. Among the players are Horace Silver, Kenny Clarke, Arthur Taylor, Barry Harris, Doug Watkins and three people who could by no stretch be considered hard boppers — Hank Jones, Ronnie Ball and John LaPorta. The essay begins:

The urge to put ideas in boxes will not be denied. Accordingly, one day in the early 1950s someone, presumably a critic, dreamed up a box called “hard bop.” The inventor no doubt intended the term to be a synonym for “soul” and “funk.” He or she may also have meant it to distinguish jazz played primarily by black people on the East Coast from jazz played primarily by white people on the West Coast. It seemed important to critics in those days to make that distinction. To some, it still seems important. At any rate, “hard bop” came to signify jazz that had rhythmic drive, leaned on blues harmonies, drew inspiration from church gospel music and was hot, not cool.

Unfortunately for box theory, try as you will to contain music, it flows around, into and out of boxes. Strict hard bop constructionists cannot force this album’s lyrical “I Married An Angel” into the category with any greater justification than they can jawbone Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud” (the Pacific Jazz version) into the shape of West Coast Jazz. Nearly half a century later, the music in this collection swings on in the category that matters most: the one labeled “Good.”

The notes then discuss the musicians and the 21 tracks on the CDs.

At the end, the reissue’s producer, Orrin Keepnews, jumps in with a postscript that reads, in part:

…So it is quite possible that there never really was a musical style that could properly be described a “hard bop.” However as Doug’s not quite tongue-in-cheek essay reminds us, there was a powerful music developing in the mid-fifties. I lived and worked in the New York area during that time span, so I was thoroughly immersed in it throughout its early development. I know that I continue to think of this music as “hard bop” whenever I think back on it (which is often), and when I heard it still being played by many of today’s best young jazz people, which is also quite frequently.

…I join Doug Ramsey in not giving a damn about the legitimacy of the terminology, because what really matters is that the music itself was among the most legitimate and exciting jazz ever created. – O.K.

By the way, since Keepnews is involved in this post, if you think that jazz critics and writers are a dour, humorless bunch, here is irrefutable evidence otherwise. (l. to r. Ramsey, Keepnews, Dan Morgenstern)

DR, OK, DM '92.jpg                                            This was several years ago. We’re still laughing.

The following was originally posted on June 9, 2011


Woke up this morning (no, that is not going to be the beginning of a blues lyric)…and decided on background music to preparations for the day.

I chose it because I wanted something that had solos I could sing, hum and whistle along with as I fixed breakfast. Every note of Horace Silver’s second Blue Note album, the first by the Jazz Messengers, has been embedded in my brain since shortly after it was released in 1955. My record collection then consisted of 10 or 12 LPs. This was one of them. I played it so often that Silver’s, Kenny Dorham’s and Hank Mobley’s solos and Art Blakey’s drum choruses became part of my mind’s musical furniture. Silver, Blakey and bassist Doug Watkins comprised a rhythm section that was the standard for what came to be called, for better or for worse, hard bop. Dorham and Mobley, with their deep knowledge of chord-based improvisation, constructed some of their most memorable solos. Silver’s compositions—and one by Mobley—are classics.

Having heard “Room 608,” “The Preacher,” “Doodlin’” and the other tunes on this indispensable album this morning, I’ll feel good all day. Listen, and you will, too.

Thank you, Horace.

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  1. joel lewis says

    It took me a while to get into Silver as a young fan in the early 70s. He was doing the United States of Mind series and I was less than overwhelmed—though I do remember seeing him on PBS, etc. It was only later that I got hold of the original stuff and recognized his genius, a really underrated composer. Can anyone recommend anything from his late period?

  2. says

    I would like to put in a plug for Horace’s mid and late ’70s albums, several of which have recently have been made available on CD after being out of print for many years. As a teenager, my first purchase was In Pursuit Of The 27th Man, which features the Brecker Brothers, but on a couple of memorable tunes (including the title tune) the vibes player Dave Friedman completes an interesting quartet. Another favorite album from that time is Silver ‘n Percussion, which has great tunes and beautiful playing by Tom Harrell with a fine rhythm team of Ron Carter and Al Foster. In retrospect, I think Horace’s writing continued to grow through this period, and I find it very appealing.

  3. Terence Smith says

    Horace Silver’s memoir, Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty, is such an honest expression
    of his gracious view of life. He is grateful for the opportunity to be generous with others.

    I treasure the recordings and have most. In the most recent, the “Hard Bop Grandpop” continued to be a gift that just keeps giving.

    No one was ever more generous in accompanying a soloist. Horace is in there swinging with and relishing every phrase of the soloist with incredible intensity.

    And not for nothing did John Mehegan once upon a time provide an “Opus de Funk” transcription as the ultimate example of what Mehegan called the “Funky School” of interpretation. Ethan Iverson now has his own (slightly different) transcription up at “Do the Math.”

    And Joe Zawinul points out that the Quintet is Horace’s instrument, as Duke’s orchestra was Duke’s other keyboard. Zawinul also makes the choice statement that Horace’s writing seems simple but “always avoids the obvious.”

    Sorry about my long windedness, but there is another aspect to his piano style which can best
    be appreciated by hearing in order the four original LP sides of Horace Silver: The Trio Tracks. After 1956, Horace usually included one ballad trio track per Quintet album, often an original of great “originality.” “Shirl” and “Mellow Mood,” through”Next Time I Fall in Love.” The tempos are slow, and very thoughtful. As deep as the ocean.

  4. David says

    One of my all time favorites was recorded by the same group, but with Farmer instead of Dorham, as Hank Mobley Quintet in ‘57. No Silver originals, but some fine piano solos and comping that cements the rhythm section and prompts some very eloquent solos from Hank and Art.

  5. Frank Roellinger says

    What a great phrase, Doug: “…my mind’s musical furniture.” Among mine are “Nica’s Dream” from what I think is the first Jazz Messengers’ album on Columbia, and the title tune from Silver’s Serenade on Blue Note. I especially like Donald Byrd’s and Hank Mobley’s solos on the former, and Junior Cook’s on the latter. None of these would exist had there not been one Horace Silver. Thanks, Horace; R.I.P.

  6. Francie Scanlon says

    I had the exquisite honor of being present last night at the Memorial for Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver at St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church (Lower East Side, New York City). Lou Donaldson talked about his days with the afore-mentioned in rented fifty cent rehearsal rooms in Harlem during the fifties and how tenacious was the saxophone player who reverted to the piano because his frame just couldn’t support the weight of that instrument. Full stop.

    Think how many people would have walked away because of that restrictive circumstance. Not the ultimate Jazz Metaphysician—absolutely not! He kept swinging, he found a way out and beyond and took all of us on that Journey. Generous, indeed. Yesterday was the seventh day of the seventh month of this universal seven year. No accident that; the Bible speaks of the seventh cycle as one of spiritual mastery. The journeyman Juggernaut that created with what
    Lou Donaldson characterized as ‘… the talent of the Soul, the talent of
    the Heart’ has undoubtedly arrived at his forever homecoming.

  7. says

    I remember a great scene at The Jazz City Festival in Edmonton, Alberta, early 80s. Stan Getz was there, Horace Silver was too. Horace was backstage as Getz was about to go on. Horace says, “Let me introduce him, let me!” Of course, he did, and he said that in 1950, Getz had come through Hartford where Horace lived and played at the time. The Horace Silver trio got the gig as the local rhythm section to back Getz.

    “You guys are pretty good” Getz said, “I oughta take you on the road with me.” Yeah, sure, Horace thought, heard that before. But he DID! He called them up and as Horace introduced Getz he said, “HE was the guy who got me out of Hartford and on the road!”