JJ 01/69: Horace Silver – In My Opinion

First published Jazz Journal, January 1969


This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgement influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silver, to give him his full and resounding nomenclature, was born in Norwalk, Connecticut in 1928. His first instrument, which he played in the high school band, was the tenor saxophone, and his first local gigs when he left school were played on that instrument. His first band was that led by Harold Holdt and it was whilst he was with him as pianist, that he was heard and hired by Stan Getz. He stayed a year with the Getz Quintet before settling in New York. Here he worked with Art Blakey (1951), Coleman Hawkins {1952), Bill Harris and Lester Young (1953), all small groups, until in 1955 he became a founder member of the famous Jazz Messengers. His style of piano playing extends from that of Bud Powell, with a very strong leaning towards the blues. As a composer he has been particularly successful, such numbers as Home Cookin’, Sister Sadie, Filthy McNasty and Senor Blues having all caught the fancy of both musician and listener alike. A bit of a food and health faddist Horace looks after himself as do few jazz musicians. But, and what is more to the point, he also keeps a firm hand on any young musician who performs with him, which as Horace has been instrumental during the past few years in discovering more than his fair share of up and coming instrumentalists, is an important factor in his approach to jazz. Would there were more like him, both musically and morally.

The Crave Jelly Roll Morton. Vogue LDE 680

Well I guess it’s really hard for me to give an opinion on Jelly Roll Morton. I never heard him, never came into contact with him and the only song of his I know is Buddy Bolden’s Blues. I heard a record of that and it’s a nice composition. From what I heard on that record he was evidently a fine piano player, in the ragtime tradition. I must admit I don’t know too much about that school, although for my age I would say my musical appreciation goes back quite some way. When at High School we had to play records and I got to know, and really appreciate, the big bands, the swing time stuff, and the great records by the early Duke and Basie bands. But this is something different, and I never came into much contact with what I think of as the ragtime school of piano players. Now I know that Monk really digs such people as James P. Johnson, and so too for that matter does Duke Ellington, but I really don’t think I have ever heard a James P. Johnson record myself. Listening to this I can tell he must have been one of the best from that school. Touch was nice and he had technique and feeling. His playing reminded me of my early days back home. My father used to cut hair. He wasn’t a licensed barber as such, but to earn a few extra dollars he used to cut hair when he got home from the factory, and he was pretty good at it too. Well there was one guy who always used to come by to get his hair cut and his name was Bud Mills, and he used to play all that ragtime piano. I used to hound him to death, either before or after his hair cut, and my father he would too. So he used to sit down at our piano and play all this ragtime. He mostly played on all the black notes, in G flat, but he played real good. He was undoubtedly untutored but he had a fine, stride left hand and he got around the instrument. Anyway he was the only ragtime piano player I ever came into contact with. I think I must try and get hold of some records by Jelly Roll, for I really did like that. The Latin influence was very strong wasn’t it? And it was a pretty tune altogether.

Smashing Thirds by Fats Waller. HMV DLP 1111

Now that one I could really get with! I really get with that. He swings like mad. He’s just beautiful, I really loved him. I was lucky enough to catch him once in person. I was a little kid at the time, but my Aunt and Uncle were great fans of the vaudeville theatre. They just loved those big bands which used to play the Apollo and in those days they had vaudeville theatres in Connecticut and all around the States. Now Fats Waller he came to the theatre in Bridgeport and my Uncle took me along to see him. Man, it was just fabulous! For not only was he a great pianist, but he was also a great humorist. I bought a lot of his old 78s on Bluebird, and I have them still – he wrote some fine compositions. It was interesting to compare this record with the one you played me before by Jelly Roll. This was to a certain extent still a ragtime composition, but Fats made it sound so much more modern. His approach was different and it swung much more than the Morton piece. That left hand of his was so beautifully accurate, and the lift he gets is terrific. A wonderful piano player. 

I Know That You Know Art Tatum. Realm 52601

Well I remember the first time I heard Art Tatum down on 52nd Street. I was just a teenager at the time, about 17 or 18 and I used to sneak away from home to hear Art. I used to order a bottle of beer at the bar and just listen to every session. I had heard him on record before, but when I heard him and saw him in person, I just wanted to give up. What’s the use of trying to play the piano, I thought, for I shall never be able to play like that. I went home very discouraged, then I pulled myself together and decided to make another attempt at it. I saw him quite a few times after that and each time I was more and more amazed at what he could do. He was the master alright, there’s no argument about that! The daddy, the master of all pianists. I was returning from a gig outside New York not so long ago, and we tuned into a good jazz programme from some local station on the car radio. Suddenly they put on an Art Tatum record, and I hadn’t heard one for a long time. It was so beautiful it almost brought tears to my eyes. He was one of the very few musicians who had a flawless technique and yet played with so much soul. You don’t often get the two together. Charlie Parker had both, but it doesn’t often happen. It is usually a whole lot of soul and only ordinary technique, or the other way around, but those two cats, they had everything!

450 Angle Mary Lou Williams. RCA Victor RD 7830

That was nice. I’m not too familiar with Mary Lou’s playing, strangely enough. I do have at home a few old 78s of hers; those things she recorded with a trio. Matter of fact I ran into Bill Coleman in Paris, just recently, and he was talking about Mary Lou. Remember those records she made in 1944 with Bill Coleman, and Al Hall on bass? They were just tremendous – far advanced for that time. And Bill Coleman is such a trumpet player – playing wonderfully today. But although I truly appreciate her talent, I havn’t heard her play for a long time. It seems such a pity that she kind of bowed out of the picture, for it seems as if she still has a lot to say, judging by that record. I don’t know why she’s not as active in music as she used to be. She does the odd festival now and again, but with all her talent, she should be working all the time. That was a great drummer (Ben Riley) back of her there, incidentally.

2nd Portrait Of The Lion Duke Ellington. RCA Victor RD 7830

That was interesting. If, as it is said, it was a kind of ‘head’ composition, it was extraordinary. The opening and closing parts sound just like Willie The Lion, good stride and all that, but that middle is pure Duke Ellington. I had the pleasure of meeting The Lion at the Village Gate not long ago. He was playing with Don Ewell and they sounded great together. We had a talk and he invited me over to his house. I haven’t been able to take advantage of that yet, but directly we are back and have a little spare time I am going to take him up on that offer. I should just love to hear him play and have a talk about the old times. He must know so much, having been in the business as long as he has. I know there is plenty to learn from him. The night I spoke of Roy Eldridge came by and sat in with the two pianos. They played Man I Love and it sounded lovely.

Duke’s playing there was fine – he’s a lovely pianist you know. Far better than a lot of people realise, or give him credit for. I had I couple of old records with just Duke and Jimmy Blanton, and they were just beautiful. Someone broke them and nearly broke my heart into the bargain. I have never been able to get them again. 

Tea For Two Earl Hines. Fontana FJL 902

He has a completely unique style. All my life I have gone for the stylists, and Earl is certainly one of the most outstanding. His approach to the piano is quite unique. His phrasing and the way he rolls those octaves. His runs and that great big sound he gets is quite different, quite unique – and it is certainly great piano playing. Now I’ve been told that there is thing of Earl’s playing in the way I play, but oddly enough I haven’t really listened to him too much. I appreciate him fully, but my listening didn’t include him. I was greatly influenced by the boogie woogie pianists in my early days. I used to copy what they did from the records, and then make up my own boogie woogie eventually. That was when I didn’t know harmony. Then when I learnt that I started in to play chords. Then some of the musicians I met suggested I listened to Tatum and Teddy Wilson, and from there progressed to Monk and Bud Powell. So really I never did listen that closely to Earl Hines, and if some of his playing has crept into my playing then it was by accident, for he was never one of my influences. Of course there again, what Earl did probably influenced Teddy Wilson and Bud, so perhaps I kind of got it second-hand.

That sound I spoke of which Earl Hines gets, that’s unique. No one can get that sound, no other pianist. And it is the same with so many of the great piano players, they have a unique sound. I don’t know just how to describe it, or the reason for it. I think the only thing I can say is that it must be God’s gift to certain men – that’s all. You see the piano is basically a dead instrument, like the vibes. Yet you take someone like Milt Jackson and he gets his own individual sound from his instrument. And so does Red Norvo – again quite unique. Lionel Hampton again, the same thing. And with the piano it is the same thing – this unique sound is a gift. God’s gift that endows you with a sound of your own. All these pianists you have played for me tonight, they all had some individual sound, a unique style of their own. Touch had something to do with it, but also they all had minds of their own which guided them the way they wanted to go. Of course everyone has influences. I don’t care however great they are – I guess even Tatum had influences. Everyone, when they are young, has influences. But anyone who has the ability to form a style of their own, must also prove that that they can think for themselves. Which I might say is not always so easy to do – especially when you are coming up. The influences around you are no doubt great, and it is sometimes hard to break away and find oneself. And one has to have faith in oneself to break away and find one’s own style. I never knew what I sounded like to my own ears, until I made my first couple of record sessions. There were no tape recorders in the days when I first joined Stan Getz, when I was twenty-one. But when I got to New York and recorded with Stan Getz and Lou Donaldson, I was able to hear those things back for the first time, and I realised what influences I had. I also realised that there was something else there, a part that was me only. Well I tried to work on that, and then I got to the point when I said to myself, ‘Well hell I like all these guys, they are great, but to hell with them. They can come later, I’m going to find me!’ And so for a long time I didn’t even play anyone else’s records, but set about trying to find me and my own thing. Which I think, and hope, I did.