And Then There Were Two

June 19, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Horace Silver died yesterday. He was 85.

Great musicians have an unmistakable sound. Horace’s chord voicings were distinctive. Even if you hear him comping behind a horn solo, you know it’s Horace.

Horace and his music rarely reached beyond the jazz audience. Some jazzers complained that Steely Dan stole the opening vamp from “Song for My Father” for their “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” But as someone else said, you can’t copyright one and five.  Norah Jones, who learned and played jazz as a teenager, used to sing “Peace” in her concerts. “This is a Horace Silver tune,” she says quickly after the first chord on one live recording, and I wonder, how many people in that audience knew who Horace is.  She sings and plays the song beautifully.  Outside of that, I know of no crossovers.

Horace is known less for his piano soloing, though that too is unmistakable, than for the groups he led. So many great players have stints with the Horace Silver quintet early in their careers – Hank Mobley, Joe Henderson, Donald Byrd, Art Farmer, et al.

But he will be most remembered for his writing.  I started thinking of his compositions that I know – know well enough to play and have them be recognizable. It started with “The Preacher,” which I first heard when I was thirteen or so on a four-trombone Kai Winding record. “Opus de Funk,” “Strollin',” “Nica’s Dream,” . . . .  and the hits just kept on coming. My Real Book app has eleven Horace tunes, and that leaves out quite a few.  His best known is probably “Song for My Father.” My own list of favorites includes, for idiosyncratic reasons, lesser known tunes like “Cool Eyes” and “The St. Vitus Dance.”

Dan Okrent tweets that with Horace’s death, of the musicians from the Great Day in Harlem photo, only two remain: Benny Golson and Sonny Rollins. 

(Horace is at the left, Golson at the top of the steps, Sonny Rolllins just to the right behind Marian McPartland and Mary Lou Williams.)

These were the musical heroes of my youth, and it’s strange to see them gradually disappear. Others in the photo are from a slightly earlier era – musicians whose names and sound were familiar, but I had no idea what they looked like.  One night, probably in 1994 when a documentary film had given the Art Kane photo some popularity, I was walking up Amsterdam Ave. and saw the great pianist Tommy Flanagan looking in the window of a neighborhood store. Inside was the photo. I stopped, and we talked briefly. Tommy would point to the faces of those who had already passed on.  “That’s Buck Clayton. There’s Red Allen.”

And now, that’s Horace Silver.

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