Focus Session: Horace Silver

December 3, 2014

By Lee Evans

In 1988, when I was first offered the opportunity to teach a course in jazz history at NYC’s Pace University, I initially turned it down because it was an evening course and I was loath to give up my many lucrative society dance-band gigs, which, almost without exception, took place during the evening. The following semester, however, I was informed that if I accepted the position, I could teach that same course in the mornings, so I accepted.  And here I am now, a quarter of a century later, after having served as department chairperson of the Theater & Fine Arts Department for two three-year terms starting in 1993, having received tenure, and been promoted to full professor… a most fortunate and happy sequence of events in my professional life as a college-level music educator.

My first consideration regarding course content, though, was a concern that jazz might be too young a genre to be thought of as actually having a substantial-enough “history” – being that at that time it was less than 100 years old. But after reading several jazz history textbooks, in particular Jazz Styles by Mark Gridley, I realized that this wonderful musical idiom did indeed have a fascinating history worth teaching about, and that jazz’s historical evolution was characterized by many changes in musical style and performance approach, not to mention its origins in an environment of slavery. These approaches included jazz’s immediate precursors – minstrel show music, march music and ragtime – followed by early combo jazz, blues, stride piano, boogie-woogie, swing-era big band jazz, bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, free jazz, jazz-rock fusion, and so on.

Hard Bop/Funky Jazz/Horace Silver: Forging a Signature Sound

It was during the so-called hard bop period, featuring music characterized by an aggressive return to several of the musical principles of the historically-earlier bebop jazz genre, that pianist/composer/bandleader Horace Silver (1928-2014) became well-known to jazz aficionados and even to a great degree to the general public. He made his indelible, distinctive mark on the jazz world in the 1950s and 1960s with a bluesy offshoot of hard bop that he and his group originated, often referred to as “funky jazz.” Moreover, some of his original compositions, including “Sister Sadie,” “The Preacher,” “Filthy McNasty,” “Senor Blues,” and “Song For My Father” became jazz standards, and remain so even today.

His quintet’s instrumentation, which became the standard instrumentation for many hard bop bands, typically featured Silver on piano, plus bass, drums, tenor saxophone, and trumpet – the latter two instruments often voiced in intervals of fourths or fifths. Also, Silver’s left hand on the piano’s lower register frequently mimicked the bass player’s active, somewhat Latin-like ostinato lines. These qualities constituted his group’s “sound,” instantly recognizable as distinctive and original. I have always admired musicians and/or arrangers who have succeeded in creating a unique instrumental group sound, as opposed to an individual player’s distinctive solo sound such as, say, that of Louis Armstrong.  Among those that immediately come to mind are: the syncopated phrasing of George Shearing’s early quintets, featuring Shearing on piano, plus vibraphone, guitar, bass, and drums; Dave Brubeck’s early-years often polyrhythmic quartet featuring himself on piano, plus bass, drums, and the great Paul Desmond on alto saxophone; the clarinet-led reed section of Glenn Miller’s swing-era big band; and Gil Evans’ unique instrumentation and arrangements for both Claude Thornhill’s big band and various Miles Davis groups. Originality is the most significant hallmark of any successful jazz performance, and they all achieved it to a high degree.

Homage to Horace Silver 

On the following pages is featured my own solo-piano composition titled “Homage To Horace Silver,” from my Hal Leonard publication Famous Jazz Piano Styles, which appears by permission of the publisher. It was my attempt some years ago to capture the essence of this incomparable jazz musician’s always-joyful jazz. 

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Lee Evans, Ed.D., is a professor of music at NYC’s Pace University. His most recent book, Crash Course In Chords (Hal Leonard Corporation), is a 56-page foundation theory and performance workbook replete with information that intermediate level students – pianists and non-pianists alike – need to know about chords from basic triads and 7th chords to inversions, chord voicing, voice leading, transposition, harmonization, and more. For additional information, visit www.leeevansjazz.com.

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