This undated image released by the National Endowment for the Arts shows musician Horace Silver.
This undated image released by the National Endowment for the Arts shows musician Horace Silver.

Jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver, 85, has died in New Rochelle, New York.

Throughout his remarkable career that began in the 1940s, the pianist, composer and arranger always had one goal in mind.

“I try to make people think with my music,” he said in a long, biographical interview from 1981 with jazz writer and photographer Bob Rosenbaum.  

Speaking recently, Rosenbaum recounted the highlights of Silver’s life, which started as the son of an immigrant from Cape Verde.  

“He grew up in a musical household," he said. "They used to throw parties for the family - you know - on Saturday afternoons - people would come over and play the music that they grew up with in Cape Verde islands.

While he was successful as a pianist, throughout his career, Silver was most revered as a composer and arranger.  His strength was drawing from multiple sources and putting them together in the jazz idiom.

“I've always taken a bit of this and a bit of that and blended it together," Silver said. "In the beginning, and I still do dig the Blues, gospel.  I love Latin rhythms.  I love Broadway show music.  Classical music.”  

Jazz Pioneer Horace Silver Dies

Silver began playing in clubs in his hometown of Hartford, Connecticut.  

“We played for the floor shows -- they had a strip dancer and a comedian and a singer,” he said.

While the setting was less than ideal for the straight-laced Silver, Rosenbaum points out, the clubs had one key benefit.

“They would bring in name players,” he said.

One was saxophonist Stan Getz, who sat in with the house band one night in 1950.

“He just liked Horace’s playing and he said, ‘Would you come on the road with me?’ and then they were on the road half a year,” Rosenbaum said.

After Silver got off the road with Getz, he took to rehearsing during the days at New York’s famous Birdland jazz club, mainly because he didn’t have a piano of his own. 

But being at Birdland put him on touch with all the jazz greats of the time and it was there, around 1952 that he met drummer Art Blakey and started one of his most important collaborations, the Jazz Messengers.  

“It was really Horace who created the Jazz Messengers," Rosenbaum said. "His presence enabled the establishment of of the Jazz Messengers. They had a very, very together balanced sound.  It created a unit of sound which didn't exist before -- actually, taking the idea of be-bop which is melodically very exciting and rhythmically very exciting and adding a front line to it - of horn players - and making it more of an orchestrated sound.”

Artist and cartoonist Hank Ketcham (R) shows jazz
Artist and cartoonist Hank Ketcham (R) shows jazz pianist Horace Silver (L) his sketch of him as jazz composer Gerald Wilson looks on, in Los Angeles, April 17, 1999.

Working with the Jazz Messengers connected Silver with the legendary jazz label Blue Note Records, which would be his musical home for the next 25 years.

But Silver’s time at Blue Note ended in disappointment. He left the iconic label and struck out on his own.

Creating his own record labels, Silver dove headlong into music that made people think.  He created a trilogy of experimental compositions with voices and unusual combinations of instruments, and in 1981, he collaborated with Bill Cosby on a record for kids called “Guides to Growing Up.”

“I think he felt deep inside that it wasn’t just about improvising in clubs and making people happy for an evening, but that he really had something to say with his music,” said Rosenbaum.

And he wanted those messages - above all - to last.

“To try to write music, and record it, perform it in such a manner that it will withstand the test of time,” said Silver.