Jazz Profiles from NPR
Horace Silver
Produced by Miyoshi Smith

Horace Silver  

Horace Silver is widely regarded as the father of hard bop piano. He places heavy emphasis on the blues and even gospel roots of jazz, while working in intricate, original improvisations. His energetic playing and infectious compositions never fail to get listeners moving to the rhythm.

Listen to trumpeter Randy Brecker, drummer Louis Hayes, and writer Gary Giddins talk about Horace's music

Born of African American and Portuguese parentage on September 3, 1928 in Norwalk, Connecticut, Horace's first introduction to music came in high school, where he played saxophone in the marching band and orchestra. He didn't get really serious about music until after he heard Jimmy Lunceford's band play.

Listen to Horace recall listening with his father to Jimmy Lunceford's band

Horace switched from saxophone to piano and immersed himself in jazz, teaching himself to play and jamming frequently with his teenage friends. His big break came when he was offered a job at the Sundown nightclub in Hartford, where he backed some of the most famous names in jazz, including saxophonist Stan Getz who was so impressed with him that he asked him to join him on the road.

Eventually, Horace settled in New York, finding steady work as a jazz recording session pianist. His remarkable solos on Miles Davis' 1954 Prestige album, Walkin', that caught the attention of many jazz musicians and critics.

A few months prior to Miles' Walkin' sessions, Horace teamed up with drummer Art Blakey and formed the Jazz Messengers. The first edition included trumpeter Kenny Dorham, tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley, and bassist Doug Watkins. Their soulful sound soon became synonymous with the group's label, Blue Note Records.

Listen to Giddins explain how Horace's music came to define the mid-1950s Blue Note sound

I hope my stuff will be naturally commercial, but it has to be natural, you know. I'm not gonna do something that's not me. I've been myself my whole life, throughout my musical career.

-- Horace Silver  

Horace Silver  

Horace left the Messengers in 1956, but he kept up a relationship with Blue Note that lasted over 25 years, recording some of the label's most treasured albums. His ensembles became hands-on training grounds for future jazz stars including Donald Byrd, Art Farmer, Joe Henderson, and many others.

Listen to saxophonist Joe Henderson and Brecker explain Silver's compositional and leadership style

Horace created signature compositional elements that would later be closely studied by both his contemporaries and those who followed in his footsteps. One was the way he would write unison parts for the bass player and his left-hand rhythmic figure on piano; another was the way he wrote bracing horn harmonies on top of rollicking rhythms.

Listen to Horace explain some of his compositional methods

Despite the immediate distinction of Horace's music, he doesn't adhere to any particular formula. He draws from a wide array of complex harmonies, rhythmic motifs, and codas.

Listen to Horace dismiss formulaic approach to compositon

As a pianist, Horace has never demonstrated the pyrotechnics of an Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson, becoming instead an artist who works brillantly within his means, especially when it comes accompanying other soloists.

Listen to Giddins and Horace talk about his piano playing

Horace's music always betrays his love for Latin music. He grew up listening to Cape Verdean folk songs from his father, who hailed from that region. On songs such as "The Cape Verdean Blues" and "Señor Blues," Horace pushes the Latin influences to the forefront.

Listen to Horace share his love for Latin music

After leaving Blue Note Records in 1979, Horace released material on his independent lables, Silverto and Emerald. He transitioned back to the major labels in the 1990s, releasing critically acclaimed CDs for Columbia and Impulse! Records. Now in his seventies, Horace is still thrilling audiences with his soulful playing.

Listen to Horace reflect on his music


View Horace Silver show playlist


ListenListen to the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library entry for Horace Silver' 1964 album Song For My Father

More InfoBrowse the NPR Jazz Web site -- NPRJazz.org