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A Fireside Chat with Horace Silver

By Published: February 13, 2004

I knew Mayor Tom Bradley was a big jazz fan and so I approached him at an affair... I included a little letter in there saying if he could help me get 'Rockin

I have interviewed Horace Silver through the years and he remains an icon to me. The more I appreciate the Lion/Wolff Blue Note days of yesteryear, the more admirable Silver’s Blue Notes are. There is enough bio and cred info on Silver’s career, done in a more fitting manner than I could, so allow me folks, Mr. Horace Silver, unedited and in his own words.

FRED JUNG: When did you become an Angeleno?

HORACE SILVER: I’ve been divorced for years. I got divorced when my son was about five years old. At that time, I was married and we were undergoing some bad experiences in New York. You know, Fred, I love New York. I still love New York, but we had been burglarized. Me and my wife had gone on vacation and we came back and our apartment had been burglarized. They just about cleaned the whole damn apartment out, took her fur coat and all her jewelry, took the stereo and kitchen appliances, the place was almost empty. They got us good because we were in Europe on a vacation for two weeks. We decided that we wanted to get out of New York. I always did love California. I used to come out from New York and play here once a year and I always enjoyed it so much. I loved the weather and the people. I talked it over with my wife and she agreed and we decided to move out here.

FJ: There is the cautionary phrase, “out of sight, out of mind,” were you ever troubled that perhaps being away from New York would have an adverse fallout to your robust career?

HS: No, no, I didn’t. Maybe earlier I had that fear, but I didn’t have that fear then because by that time I had made a name for myself in jazz. I could move anywhere and commute and do my gigs and still do my tours and recordings. I felt that I could live where I wanted to live because by that time I had built a reputation.

FJ: Word around town is that you have long supported the music in Los Angeles, regularly attending shows at the Jazz Bakery and Catalina Bar & Grill.

HS: I want to keep up with what’s going on. I want to hear all the old timers that come in from New York, who play at the Jazz Bakery or Catalina’s, check them out and give them a hug, but I also want to hear some of these youngsters that are coming out here. There are some fine, young players and I like to go out and check them out and encourage them.

FJ: It has become a part of jazz lore, but as the story goes, very early in your career, you were struggling to move to New York, Stan Getz hired you and you were able to do so.

HS: That’s pretty right. I had been saving my money to go to New York and try to make it in music. I got sick at that time and I had maybe seven hundred dollars in the bank and I had spent all that money on doctor bills. So I guess I used that as an excuse not to go because deep down within. I had a fear of going because what if I went down to New York and I didn’t make it? So I had procrastinated on going, although I had all this money saved up. Then when the medical bills came and I had spent all this money, it gave me an excuse not to make the move. But the good Lord was looking after me and Stan Getz came through Hartford and heard me and my trio and hired us. That was a blessing.

FJ: Perhaps raw pre-Getz, you fastly became the most significant addition to the Blue Note catalog.

HS: I used to play at the Paradise Bar and Grill on 110th Street and 8th Avenue with a guy named Big Nick Nicholas. We had the gig there five nights a week. It was him on tenor, Kalil Mahdi on drums, and myself on piano, no bass, and we played there five nights a week. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, we could play anything we wanted to play and all the guys could come and sit in and jam with us. But Friday and Saturday, we had to play for dancing and for the floorshow. Charlie Parker came in and sat in with us a couple of times. Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Joe Newman, Ike Quebec, a mixture of swing era and bebop musicians would come in and sit in with us. Lou Donaldson came in, and that is how I met Alfred Lion. I was a good friend of Lou Donaldson and Alfred used to come in, because he was always scouting for talent, and he heard Lou and he liked Lou and so he recorded Lou. Lou asked me to be on his session and so I made this record with Lou and then a second record for Blue Note. Lou was supposed to make a third record for Blue Note, which I was supposed to be on and Alfred called me and said that Lou couldn’t make the session and that he had already booked the studio and to come in and make a trio album for him. That was my opportunity.

FJ: Interesting that he scouted talent, rather than waiting for tapes to come to him a day late and a dollar short.

HS: That is the thing, he didn’t wait for somebody to tell him who was great. Alfred got out and went to the clubs at night. He came to the Paradise and listen to the jam sessions to see if there was anything he liked and that is how he discovered Lou.

FJ: Your Blue Note sessions are not only touted for the music, but also the esthetic, the covers were art.

HS: They let me approve them. Frank Wolff usually took all the picture and Reid Miles did all of the designing. When they would get it together, they would have me come in and take a look at it. Most of the time, I approved of it. I told Alfred that most of the guys that recorded for him were concerned with doing a good record and the packaging, they didn’t give a shit about. I didn’t want a picture on the cover that I didn’t like and every time I looked at the cover, I cringed. He gave me that privilege of doing that and that is how I learned to be a producer, watching him and what he did and him allowing me to have input on the covers and liner notes.

FJ: Blue Note has an aggressive reissue program, so eventually, all your releases will be available to the public in some fashion. Do you have plans on doing the same for your Silveto recordings?

HS: Not really. Silveto is still a production company, but I don’t produce records anymore. I’ve got this new record coming out on Bop City Records, which I leased to them. I’ve leased them the master.

FJ: Rockin’ with Rachmaninoff, what is the story behind amusing concept?

HS: I had a dream one night that Duke Ellington and Rachmaninoff met in heaven and they both were admirerers of each other’s music and Duke took Rachmaninoff on a tour around heaven to meet all the jazz greats that had died and gone there like Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, and Thelonious Monk. When I woke up from the dream, I thought that this would make a good idea for a stage play. So I sat down and wrote one. After I got it done, I was concerned as to how I was going to put this on. I knew Mayor Tom Bradley was a big jazz fan and so I approached him at an affair. Him and Billy Taylor went to college together and Billy Taylor was performing in town and I went there and brought a package of my Silveto Records and gave them to Mayor Bradley as a present. I included a little letter in there saying if he could help me get Rockin’ with Rachmaninoff put on in L.A., I would donate my services free. They would just have to pay the dancers, singers, and narrator. His secretary called me a few weeks later and said that he wanted to have a meeting with me. He introduced me to the head of the cultural affairs department and it took us about a year to get this thing put on, but we did put it on at a theater in Hollywood for a weekend. We got a great review in the paper, but nothing ever happened after that. So I decided to take the band and singers into the studio and record this music for posterity.

This was a major point in my career. I had never written a stage play before. I wanted to put this down on tape and bring it out on my Silveto label. That was my intent, but in the meantime, things got so bad with the Silveto label, where the distributors were not paying me, I had to throw in the towel. I went to Columbia and asked them if they would be interested in listening to it, but they weren’t even interested in listening to it.

Then I went to Impulse! and same thing. The thing sat there in my closet for eleven years. Finally my contract with Verve ended and I was free. I thought that now would be the time to get this thing out of the closet and mix the sound because I had never mixed the sound before. It was on two-inch tape. So we got in the studio and mixed the sound and I wanted to find someone to release it because I wasn’t going back to trying to put out my own records anymore because these distributors are a bunch of crooks. They take your records and they never pay you for them. Then I heard Al Schmitt and some partners were starting this company, Bop City Records. I called Al and asked if he wanted to hear it and he said yes and I sent him a copy. He called me back and said he liked it and I made a deal to lease it to them. It is coming out October 28.

FJ: And health and wealth are in the win column?

HS: Almost, not quite. I am working on something right now. Norah Jones did my tune “Peace” and I feel I haven’t been paid the right money for it. They never applied for a license for it and when I found out about it, it had been out already for a year and a half or so. I sent them a license and they signed it and sent it back, but they paid me from the date on the license and not the release. I am trying to get that resolved because Norah Jones sells a lot of records. But I’m feeling pretty good. I have a little sciatic problem that bothers me from time to time, my right hip, but I am getting treatment for it. Other than that, I am fine.

FJ: Have you retired from performing?

HS: Not exactly. Let me put it this way, Fred, I’ve been out there on the road for fifty years and I am kind of tired of it now. It is not that I don’t want to play in front of the people. I like to do that. I am going into the studio in April to do a new album with the Silver Brass Ensemble and then I would like to tour behind that.

FJ: Impressively, even Cecil Taylor suggests your influence.

HS: I haven’t seen Cecil in a long time, but one thing is for sure, if I am playing somewhere and Cecil is anywhere near it, he always shows up and we hang out. I’m very pleased that he likes my stuff.

FJ: And the future?

HS: Well, I am hoping and praying that God will alert me when I get too old and feeble to make a good record and stop making records.

FJ: Here is hoping that never happens.

HS: Me too (laughing). A few of my idols have fallen under that. Lester Young, as great as he is, towards his later years, he was not in good physical health, but I presume he needed the money and he made some records that were not up to his standard. Same thing with Coleman Hawkins, the last record he made was not up to his standard, Bud Powell, same thing. One thing I can say about Thelonious Monk, he quit when he was ahead. He knew when to stop. You won’t find a weak record out by Thelonious. Also, I’ve started a non-profit organization called the Horace Silver Foundation to give annual scholarships to deserving piano students. I am affiliated with USC and our first show will be there November 16, Sunday afternoon at 4. The winner will receive a ten thousand dollar scholarship and go directly to the school of their choice. It is free and please come.

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