Jazz pianist Horace Silver has died. As a bandleader, he mentored some of the hottest musicians of the 1950s and '60s. As a composer, he combined blues, funk and Latin sounds into jazz standards that are still played today. Silver died this morning at his home in New Rochelle, New York, of cardiac arrest. He was 85 years old. NPR's Walter Ray Watson has this appreciation.

WALTER RAY WATSON, BYLINE: Horace Silver was 11 when he and his father stumbled on a swing band one warm Sunday night.


HORACE SILVER: And I saw these black guys getting out of the bus with their instruments. And I said, Dad, can we say and just hear them play? One number, just one number. No, you've got to go to school in the morning. You've got to get up early. Oh, please. You know, I'd beg and plead and beg and plead. So he said, OK, one number.

WATSON: Silver told NPR in 1996 that the band was Jimmie Lunceford's Orchestra. His dad let him stay for three tunes. Silver credits that one event for a lifetime chasing jazz as a pianist and bandleader. Silver grew up in Norwalk, Connecticut. By his early 20s, he was a good enough pianist to be hired by saxophonist Stan Getz.


WATSON: That was 1950. New York City became his home the very next year. Soon after, he co-founded the Jazz Messengers with drummer Art Blakey. It was a hothouse for young talent and future stars. Some later joined Silver's bands, including saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Kenny Dorham.


WATSON: Silver signed to Blue Note Records, and the label gave him free reign as a house pianist and arranger for nearly three decades. He created a sound that was the blueprint for countless jazz quintet's in the 1950s and '60s - bluesy, soulful, funky.


SILVER: I got the impression that sometimes some of the bebop players felt it beyond them to play funky. You know, just kind of take your shoes off and get down into the real nitty-gritty of the music and get guttural sort of. Get basic.


WATSON: Silver's memoir, "Let's Get To The Nitty Gritty," says it all. His style was jazz's next big thing after bebop. It was called hard bop.

DAN MORGENSTERN: He is the guy who started all that.

WATSON: Dan Morgenstern is director emeritus of the jazz studies program at Rutgers University. Morgenstern says Silver had great melodies, sophisticated harmonies and rhythms you could dance to.

MORGENSTERN: They were catchy. Those themes of Horace's stay in your ear, and he just had a knack for that.


WATSON: Horace Silver's music was just as affecting in person. Dan Morgenstern recalls hearing the pianist at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival.

MORGENSTERN: His hair would be flying and his head was bobbing from side to side and up and down. And he would be ringing wet when he came off that stage.


WATSON: Drummer Roger Humphries drove Silver's music into the mid-1960s. Humphries saw Silver not just as an aspiring pianist, but as a mentor, he says, like a wonderful big brother.

ROGER HUMPHRIES: He treated me very well. He made me, you know, want to be in his band. He made me want to play for him.

WATSON: Roger Humphries backed silver on the pianist's most famous composition.


WATSON: "Song For My Father" was written for the man who nurtured Silver's career in the first place.


SILVER: My dad said to me one time when I was a little boy - he said, you know, I'm not a rich man. I'm a factory worker. But if you want to go to college, I'll try my best to try to put you through college, you know. I said, no, I don't want to go to college. I want to become a famous jazz musician. But whether I become famous jazz musician or not, I just want to play music. If I play in a local bar, you know, all my life, and I just want to play music. That's all I want to do. (Laughing).

WATSON: And he did for more than 60 years. Walter Ray Watson, NPR News.


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