Jazz pianist Horace Silver, synonymous with Blue Note Records when hard bop — a style he helped pioneer — became the label’s bread and butter, died at age 85 of natural causes at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. His son Gregory confirmed the pianist’s death to several news outlets.
Silver, whose association with Blue Note spanned a quarter decade, produced a number of hits for the label beginning in 1955 with “Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers,” a group that would continue under the leadership of co-founder Art Blakey when Silver split off on his own and crafted an amazingly diverse solo career that mixed jazz, blues, gospel and Latin influences.
Signature works like “The Preacher” and “Song for My Father,” the title track from Silver’s 1965 album, would help steer jazz into into a more soulful, less doctrinaire direction — a style also reflected by many young jazzmen of the day, including Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley and Ramsey Lewis.
If he helped shape hard bop, Silver also contributed to its being embraced by a wider audience. “He not only defined the first steps in the style,” wrote Richard Cook and Brian Morton in “The Penguin Guide to Jazz,” “he wrote several of its most durable staples, ran bands that embodied and transcended the idiom and perfected a piano manner which summed up hard bop’s wit and trenchancy and popular appeal.”
“Señor Blues,” a late 50s classic written in 6/8 time with a Latin beat, acted as a kind of counterweight to the popular West Coast jazz of the day, and epitomized Silver’s diversity as a composer and player, as well as an East Coast approach to the form that was more muscular and blues-based.
Although Silver cited Art Tatum as a key influence, his heroes included Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Nat King Cole. He also acted as mentor to a number of rising musicians. His quintets touted a who’s who of budding brass giants, including Blue Mitchell, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw on trumpet, and Junior Cook, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson on sax.
But it was Stan Getz who gave Silver his first big break in 1950 by taking him on the road and tapping his gifts as a composer, a decided advantage at a time when many jazz instrumentalists were relying on standards culled from Broadway musicals and Tin Pan Alley.
Silver — whose family emigrated from Cape Verde off the West African coast and settled in Norwalk, Conn., where Silver was born — cultivated a distinct look, with a shock of straight, slicked-back hair, aquiline features and his own sartorial style.
He also recording for such imprints as Columbia and Impulse! and as a featured sideman with such artists as Blakey, Milt Jackson, Hank Mobley and Miles Davis, with whom Silver collaborated on four albums released in 1954, including the seminal “Walkin'” LP.
He would later form his own labels, Silverto and later Emerald, in a career that continued well into the 90s, embracing everything from orchestral arrangements to a belief in music’s “spiritual, holistic, self-help elements,” according to a 1993 interview.
He is survived by his son Gregory.