By Devon Wendell
When I think of Horace Silver I think of how challenging it must have been to bring that old style of blues and gospel back into jazz during the heyday of bebop. Sure the blues was a part of bop; Bird, Dizzy, Miles, and Monk loved it, played it, and used it in their compositions but in a more abstract and modern fashion. Silver’s blues, even when mixed with Latin jazz and bebop was more “old timey” or “back home” blues that many lovers (and some of the players) of the newer jazz sound veered away from and even felt ashamed of.
I first heard Horace Silver in high school on the album A Night At Birdland By The Art Blakey Quintet on Blue Note Records with Lou Donaldson, Clifford Brown, Curley Russell, and Blakey of course. His style jumped out at me. A young Clifford Brown was playing much like Fats Navarro and Donaldson was using up all of his stock Bird licks. Russell and Blakey too were in that bebop groove but then this aggressive, cocky, and percussive blues piano sound came in and it was like a left hook to the face.
I was so used to straight-up bebop players like Bud Powell, Dodo Marmarosa, Al Haig, John Lewis, and Barry Harris. Although I heard remnants of Teddy Wilson and Count Basie, Silver’s approach, reminded me more of the Chicago blues pianists I had grown up on like Otis Spann, Little Johnny Jones and Eddie Boyd. But the purity of Silver’s blues/gospel style somehow fit perfectly in the bop idiom. It complimented it and brought more of the blues out in the soloists in his many groups or artists he backed up on a countless number of classic sessions.
After my encounter with the live Blakey album, I sought out other recordings by Silver such as Horace Silver And The Jazz Messengers, Blowin’ The Blues Away, 6 Pieces Of Silver, Finger Poppin,’ and Song For My Father.
I also heard Silver’s piano work on Sonny Rollins Vol.2 (With two pianists consisting of Silver and Thelonious Monk) and Miles Davis’ Bags Groove. No matter what the musical setting or with whom he was swinging with, Silver let it be known that pure blues and gospel are and will always be valid in jazz. It helped to create the music. It’s the heartbeat of jazz that makes everything swing.
Silver (along with drummer and collaborator Art Blakey) wanted jazz to be more accessible and danceable to people and less of a secret society of highly skilled players who may have seemed harmonically, rhythmically, and socially unapproachable to the masses. And so hard-bop was born and many of its greatest practitioners played and honed their skills in Silver’s bands – players such as Junior Cook, Hank Mobley, Louis Hayes, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Blue Mitchell, Art Farmer, Clifford Jordan, and James Spaulding to name only a few. Silver schooled musicians back into the blues at a time when many players were studying Ravel and Schoenberg looking for something new outward.
Silver’s style changed jazz. Even though he isn’t on the recording, Art Blakey And The Jazz Messengers Moanin’ was a direct reaction to Silver’s influence. Bobby Timmons who wrote the hard- bop anthem was a descendant of Silver’s style. Silver’s classic composition “Song For My Father” continues to reach audiences of all ages, even many of whom aren’t jazz geeks like myself. For me, Horace Silver’s sound will always be synonymous with Blue Note Records.
Horace Silver passed away Wednesday, June 18, 2014 at his home in New Rochelle N.Y. at the age of 85. From now on, whenever jazz musicians try to ditch the blues and gospel roots — as has happened many times throughout the music’s history– I hope the ghost of Horace Silver will come down from Heaven, kick their tight butts and remind them where the swing came from. Goodbye “Senor Blues.”
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