A Fireside Chat With Horace Silver
“ When I wrote them, I would say to myself that I hope these at least withstand the test of time. I hope they don't sound old in ten years... ”
FRED JUNG: Let's start from the beginning.
HORACE SILVER: I took up the piano, merely as a monkey see, monkey do type of a thing. There was a girl who lived next door to me. We were about the same age and we used to play together. She had a younger sister and sometimes we would play with her too. She was pretty young, but me and this girl, we used to play together. When her dad or mother bought her a bicycle, I went and I asked my dad for a bicycle. When she got her roller skates, I asked my dad for them. I tried to copy all the stuff that her parents were giving her, I asked my dad for. So finally, her brother was a pianist and he played in some bands around town here locally and finally, she decided that she wanted to study the piano and so her parents got her a piano, well, they had a piano actually. So I wanted to play the piano and do the same thing, copy her.
So my uncle worked out in the country somewhere for these rich white people who were moving to Florida and they had an old, upright piano that they wanted to get rid of and so he asked if he could get it and him and my dad found somebody with a truck and they went out there and got the piano and brought it home and put it in the kitchen and then I started taking lessons. That is how I started. After two weeks or three weeks, I got bored with playing scales and exercises and I told my dad that I wanted to quit, but he said, "No, you are not going to quit. You wanted this and I got it for you and you are going to stick with it." He said, "One day, you will thank me for this." And I do, today, thank him for it. But that is how I got started. Actually, Fred, I wasn't that much interested in it at that time.
It wasn't until I started being able to read music a little bit then I would go to the five and ten cent store and buy sheet music like "Moonlight Serenade" by Glenn Miller and "Stardust" by Hoagy Carmichael and all of these things that I would bring home and play to make it a little bit more interesting to me. It wasn't really until I heard the Jimmie Lunceford band at a local amusement park in Connecticut. I heard that band one Sunday, me and my dad and that band turned me on. That Lunceford band, they sounded so good. I just said to myself, "That's what I want to be. I want to be a musician." I made my dedication that night. I was about eleven years old at the time.
FJ: What were some of your other listening pleasures?
HS: Well, I used to go to the five and ten cents store at Woolworth and they had a record section, the old 78 rpm records and I would buy Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, Slim and Slam, Slim Gaillard, Slim and Slam, and various other records. Whatever appealed to me, I would take them home and listen to them and get inspired.
FJ: During your distinguished career, you have played alongside the likes of Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, J. J. Johnson, Kenny Dorham, and Art Farmer. Does anyone linger in your memory?
HS: Yeah, well, Miles Davis because I always tell people that you learn with everybody you play with. They're older musicians. They're geniuses. They're inspirational and you learn a lot from playing with them. Either they show you things or else you learn from observing what they do. But I think I learned the most, from any one guy, and that was from Miles Davis. We used to live in the same hotel and he used to come to my room and I had a piano in my room and he would show me some different chords on the piano and I learned some harmonic voicings from him. Also, I just learned from watching what he did and being inspired by his great genius.
FJ: In three decades, during the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, you led well over thirty sessions as a leader for Blue Note Records, not counting the numerous sessions you appeared on. It almost seems like you were the house pianist.
HS: Well, Blue Note began long before I came with it, but when I got with it, it was sort of like a fluke how I got to do my own record session there because Lou Donaldson hired me to do his record. I did the first record with Lou and then I did a second record with Lou and then I was supposed to do a third record with Lou. About three days before the session, Alfred (Alfred Lion) called me and said, "Well, Lou can't make it. We've already rented the studio. Why don't you come out and make a trio session for us." I said, "Great." Luckily, I had a lot of material and I got a chance to practice for three days and got my thing together and went onto make this first trio album. That led to two more trio albums and I did three trio albums and eventually, I did a quintet album with Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, and Doug Watkins, Art Blakey, and myself and as a result of doing that album, I decided to make a go out of it.
FJ: That was the OG edition of the Jazz Messengers.
HS: I don't know exactly how long we played together. We didn't get that much work to tell you the truth, Fred. We worked a few gigs here and there.
FJ: One would think club owners would be foaming at the mouth to get you guys onto the bandstand.
HS: Yeah, well, that's the way it was in those days, Fred. We couldn't get a gig at Birdland for a while there. Nobody seemed to play much attention to us, the major jazz clubs. But anyway, we stuck together for a while until the thing dispersed.
FJ: The Horace Silver Quintet has quite an impressive alumni roll. Your thoughts on Hank Mobley, who appears on Six Pieces of Silver and The Stylings of Silver.
HS: Oh, a great musician, very underrated. He's one of the great jazz saxophonists of our time, I think, in my opinion, very creative and very inventive, always full of ideas, a lot of feeling when he plays. He is one of my favorite tenor saxophone players, Hank Mobley.
FJ: The late Art Farmer, who appears on The Stylings of Silver and Further Explorations by the Horace Silver Quintet.
HS: Art Farmer too, another beautiful musician, a wonderful person. He had such a wonderful style. He was really a stylist on his horn and Kenny Dorham too. I loved Kenny Dorham's playing. Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley together, at that time, when we had those two guys in the frontline, I think, that was one of the hippest frontlines that I have ever played with.
FJ: And Blue Mitchell, who along with Junior Cook, made up the frontline on classics like Finger Poppin' with the Horace Silver Quintet, Blowin' the Blues Away, Horace-Scope, Doin' the Thing (At the Village Gate), The Tokyo Blues, and Silver's Serenade.
HS: Oh, Blue was great. Blue had that happy medium. He pleased the musicians as well as the public. He knew how to get funky and get on down and rock the house with his playing and he could play hip too and he could play pretty. He covered the whole thing and had a lot of feeling. I will tell you, Fred, most of all the trumpet players that came after him, followed his pattern. He set the style for trumpet playing in my quintet.
FJ: And Blue's partner in crime, Junior Cook.
HS: Junior Cook, another very fine player, underrated. Jun was a fine musician.
FJ: As notable as Horace Silver, the pianist and Horace Silver, the bandleader have been, I have always been more partial to Horace Silver, the composer with exceptional hits like "The Preacher," "Senor Blues," "Soulville," "Cookin' at the Continental," "Peace," "Sister Sadie," "Strollin'," and "Song for My Father."
HS: Well, I never thought they would be, Fred. When I wrote them, I would say to myself that I hope these at least withstand the test of time. I hope they don't sound old in ten years or something. But I listened to some of those records we made ten, twenty years ago and they sound like they could have been made yesterday. So I always loved to compose. It is a talent that I discovered I had and I just started going to work with it. The way in which they come to you is not something that you can predict. Compositions could be instantaneous. You can get an idea and spout it all out and play it on the piano and write it out on paper or put it on a tape recorder. It could be a few minutes and then it could take you several days or several weeks. It depends on the situation because sometimes, you get a smidgen of an idea and you can't seem to complete it. It might take you weeks to complete it and then it might take you ten minutes, or half an hour, or the rest of the day, or three or four hours. It is unpredictable.
FJ: Does it become easier as the years pass by?
HS: I would say that sometimes it is easy and sometimes it is not so easy. Whether it is easy or hard, it is fun. That's the main thing, Fred. I enjoy doing it. It's fun and when I complete it and it's good, I am very happy. It is a lot of fun, whether it takes an hour or it takes two weeks.
FJ: Classic Blue Note albums like Finger Poppin' with the Horace Silver Quintet, Doin' the Thing (At the Village Gate), Senor Blues, and You Gotta Take a Little Love have long been deleted and are unavailable for purchase in the States.
HS: I don't know, Fred. I would say that there is a lot of stuff that they have on the shelf there that I wish they would re-release, the Silver 'n series: Silver 'n Brass, Silver 'n Wood, Silver 'n Percussion, Silver 'n Strings, Silver 'n Voices. All that stuff is on the shelf that they haven't re-released that. I don't know why, but it is just sitting there. Several years ago, Michael Cuscuna called me and said that they were thinking about releasing the Silver 'n series. He thought that some of it could be remastered. He thought that some of it could have been mixed better and would I be willing to go into the studio with him and help him to remix it and I said, "Sure, I would be glad to." And that was the end of that. I never heard more about it. There is a lot of stuff there.
FJ: Just as historic as the music of those Blue Note albums are the cover art, which even today is vanguard. What was the extent of your input?
HS: Well, I approved or disapproved. Like what I'm doing now with Silveto Productions, who produces Horace Silver for Verve Records, I come up with the concept for the cover and work with the art department and the photographers in getting it done. I come up with the concepts, but in those days, I didn't come up with any concepts. All I did was once the whoever artist that designed it, did it, then Alfred would call me and I would go down to the office and take a look at it. Most of the time, I approved of it, but sometimes I said, "No, I don't like that." Once in a while, that happened, but very often. Reid Miles was fine. He did most of the stuff. He did some good work.
FJ: After three decades with Blue Note, you formed your own label, Silveto.
HS: I had the label for about ten years. After I did The United States of Mind (That Healin' Feelin', Total Response, All), that three-volume set called The United States of Mind, that particular music that I did on The United States of Mind, had a spiritual connotation to it. It had a lot of singing. It had a lot of good solos too. It had more singing than I've had on records before. I don't know because for some reason, it didn't sell that well, but I was very keen on doing this spiritual concept with the music and I knew that, at that time anyway and maybe even today, but at that time, Blue Note or any other company probably wouldn't want to go for that concept. So I said that the only way that I will continue this concept is to do it myself. So I decided to start my own label.
FJ: That must have been an arduous undertaking.
HS: Yes, it was, Fred. It was very difficult. It was basically a one man operation and I didn't have any other people signed up. It was a label with just myself. Although, I did release a Clark Terry quartet album, which was made from the tapes it was made at a club in Long Island. It was all pretty difficult. I had to do everything because it was a one man operation. You had to write the music, arrange it, write it out, rehearse it, and record it, and then the playback, and then you had to mix the sound and get the master done. You had to get a graphic guy to design the cover for you, a photographer, a graphic guy to design the lettering and the linear notes and things. It was a lot of work. Then you had to take the master tapes to the plant and have them do the pressing. It was a lot of stages to go through. But it was good. It was a good experience for me because it taught me how to be a producer.
FJ: After releasing a handful of albums on Silveto, you recorded It's Got to Be Funky and Pencil Packin' Papa for the Columbia label.
HS: Right, I was only with Columbia for a couple of years. We did two records for them and that was it. I wish they would re-release them because there is some fine music there. You might still be able to find a few copies that are still available, but it is not re-released. It is a shame, Fred, because I am proud of that music. Those two records came out beautifully. Andy Bey sang beautifully on it and so did, on the other one, O.C. Smith sang beautifully on Pencil Packin' Papa.
FJ: What personality takes precedent, Horace Silver, the composer, Horace Silver, the pianist, or Horace Silver, the bandleader?
HS: Well, hopefully, I would like to be known for all three because I'm a pretty fair pianist and I'm a good composer. I'm a good lyricist and I try to be a good bandleader. And I try to be a good businessman, for a musician (laughing). I mean, musicians are not always the greatest business people, but I realized that it is a part of the business. You have to be involved in the business if you are going to make out and so I try to be a good businessman as well.
FJ: And the royalty checks are still coming in?
HS: Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, I am so happy, Fred, that these young musicians are recording a lot of my material, some of the older tunes. A lot of people are recording my material and so I get checks from various record companies throughout the country. For the most part, I enjoy all of it. Occasionally, I hear an interpretation of one of my tunes that I say that they sure messed that one up. I would say that ninety-five percent of what I hear, I like what I hear. I'm very honored that they like the music so much that they would do it. There is a whole lot of composers out there and a whole lot of good material and to think that they have chosen some of mine is very gratifying.
FJ: And the future?
HS: Actually, I was scheduled to go to New York in September to do a new album, but I was ill so I couldn't go. I'm feeling quite a bit better now. I'm not a hundred percent. I'm quite a bit better. I'm hoping to get to New York around the spring of 2001 and get in there and do this album. The music is already all written. It is ready to go.
FJ: Is that going to be another quintet recording?
HS: No, I'm doing something different. I'm not going to say what it is right now. There is plenty left, Fred, a lot of things that I want to do career wise, a lot of goals that I want to achieve. There are things that I have thought about for the last ten or fifteen years, musical goals that I wanted to try, but haven't had the time or the opportunity to try to get them to come off. I ain't through yet, Fred. I've got a lot more to do and a lot more to give to the world.
Horace Silver Tribute & Discography