Horace Silver, a trailblazing pianist and composer who was a primary developer in the 1950s and 1960s of the style of jazz known as hard bop, marked by catchy melodies and relentless rhythms, died Wednesday in New Rochelle, New York. He was 85.
His death was announced by Blue Note Records, for whom he recorded many of his most important albums.
In 1953, Silver and drummer Art Blakey teamed up to form the Jazz Messengers, one of the most influential groups in jazz. Silver’s earthy, blues-drenched compositions became a key part of the band’s repertoire and helped define a musical era.
His work as a pianist, composer and leader of quintets became pivotal in the jazz of the late ’50s, jazz historian Martin Williams wrote in his 1970 book, The Jazz Tradition.
When other jazz musicians were becoming more and more esoteric, reaching levels of musical abstraction where few listeners would follow, Silver remained grounded in the earlier traditions of gospel and the blues. You could always hum his tunes and tap your toe to the beat.
They got so sophisticated that it seemed like they were afraid to play the blues, like it was demeaning to be funky, Silver told Newsday in 1994, describing his populist musical approach. And I tried to bring that. I didn’t do it consciously at first. But it started to happen.
In dozens of recordings for Blue Note in the 1950s and ’60s, he combined long-standing musical traditions with the harmonic advances of bebop – the intricate jazz introduced in the 1940s by saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Silver’s music sounded casual and spontaneous, but in fact it was carefully composed and arranged, with riffing horn parts and room for instrumental solos.
His easily recognizable but hard-to-classify music led critics on a search for a proper term to describe it. They called it soul jazz and funk before settling on hard bop.
Horace Silver’s music has always represented what jazz musicians preach but don’t necessarily practice, and that’s simplicity, the Grammy Award-winning bass player Christian McBride told NPR in 2008. It gets in your blood easily. You can comprehend it easily. It’s very rooted, very soulful.
Many of Silver’s tunes, including Nica’s Dream, Doodlin’, Señor Blues and Filthy McNasty, have become jazz standards, recorded hundreds of times by others. His music also found popularity beyond the world of jazz, and his 1964 composition Song for My Father, became a minor pop hit. The tune’s loping bass was borrowed wholesale by Steely Dan for the rock group’s 1974 hit Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.
Silver was also an important bandleader who helped propel the careers of dozens of major jazz musicians, including trumpeter Art Farmer and saxophonist Joe Henderson.