On Horace Silver


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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 through 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)

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 ofHorace 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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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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