© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“The piano is the most versatile and autonomous of all the musical instruments. No more perfect tool (and that, ultimately, is all an instrument really is) for expressing music has ever been developed. The piano has been a central instrument in the evolution of jazz from the music's infancy, and pianists have always been among jazz's great improvisers, composers, and bandleaders.”
- Len Lyons, Jazz pianist, author and critic
There’s an old age that declares: “I’d rather be lucky than good.”
I’ve always thought, “Why choose?” Why not be both lucky and good?
Each time I turn to Len Lyons’ The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music I apply that adage to Len because not only was he luckily in the right place and the right time to secure interviews with 27 of the most distinguished pianists in the history of Jazz in the 20th century, but he was also a skilled pianist in his own right which allowed him to take full advantage of these conversations by asking good questions.
Len explains how this unique and important book came about in the following excerpts from its PREFACE.
“Jazz piano has always seemed to me to be a single language of a thousand different dialects. It embraces a multiplicity of styles, yet has a strong underlying continuity that its artists study formally or absorb naturally through their listening and playing. It has been six years since it first occurred to me that the jazz piano tradition was an autonomous subject deserving book-length treatment. My original idea was to write a collection of journalistic stories about the pianists I had interviewed over the years for magazines and newspapers, contrasting their individual differences with their commonly shared heritage. The project was slow to start. It was superseded by my ongoing work as a freelance journalist and the time-consuming process of writing a listener's guide to jazz, published in 1980 as The 101 Best Jazz Albums.
Then, in May 1982, while organizing my portfolio, I began rereading my transcribed interviews with jazz pianists, which, by that time, exceeded three dozen. An hour later I was still reading, finding their stories delightful (even the second time around) and their insights enlightening and thought-provoking. Suddenly I realized I had the key to presenting the jazz piano story: The pianists must speak for themselves. Their opinions, reminiscences, and anecdotes reveal intimately who they are, and their comments on playing jazz, and on their unique heritage, ring truest in their own words. In short, the focus of the book I was imagining shifted from jazz piano to the jazz pianists, who are, after all, the lifeblood of the music.”
For more than a quarter century Horace Silver has led his own quintets in an extroverted, driving, and blues-based modern jazz style that historians refer to as hard bop. Silver's music is thought of as East Coast because most of the musicians who played it lived and worked there. East Coast jazz had qualities that seem to contrast with the more disciplined West Coast and cool styles. … Silver's influence began to be felt in the mid-1950's, when he played in a group with Art Blakey that later became the Jazz Messengers.
In 1956 Silver formed his own band with Art Farmer on trumpet and Hank Mobley on tenor sax. Subsequent editions of the Horace Silver Quintet were famous for their exciting trumpet/sax front lines, such as Blue Mitchell/ Junior Cook, Freddie Hubbard/Wayne Shorter, Woody Shaw/Joe Henderson, Randy Brecker/Michael Brecker, and Tom Harrell/Bob Berg. Horace himself was celebrated for his catchy, singable compositions like "Senor Blues," "Sister 'Sadie," "Blowin' the Blues Away," and "Song for My Father." Silver's ability to ignite other soloists with staccato, rhythmic accompanying chords is legendary. His bluesy and melodic solos revealed, at a time when the long, tortuous improvised line prevailed, the power of simplicity. To a greater extent than his peers, Silver's improvisations have the economy of expression and balance of composed melodies.
Len Lyons met Horace Silver at the Sam Wong Hotel bordering Chinatown/North Beach sections of San Francisco. Below, he describes what happened from there.
“His room was austere, lacking even a telephone, but the decor was somewhat enlivened by a vegetable juicer and an impressive lineup of vitamin pills on the dresser. When Horace was in his thirties, he cured an arthritic right hand with a regimen of physical therapy and a diet to which he still adheres faithfully. In his fifties, Horace is slim, energetic, and bright-eyed. Keeping fit is necessary for his physical style of playing. When Horace digs in up-tempo, he curves his torso over the keyboard, his shoulders sway like a cat ready to pounce, and he seems to attack each note with his whole body. His technique would give a classical teacher nightmares, but it enables him to swing with the precision of a tightly wound metronome. Like his hotel room, Silver's soloing is simple, angular, and Spartan. At the top of his hierarchy of values is what he calls "in-depthness" or "simplicity coupled with profundity." It is perhaps this quality that makes both his soloing and compositions easily grasped yet durable.
Another word that captures the feeling of Silver's music is "funky." Reared on the linear sophistication of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell, Silver simplified and "bluesified" these influences in his own music. Introducing a driving and sometimes "Latin" rhythm behind his melodies, Silver's sound used to be called soul jazz, before "soul" became associated more strictly with rhythm and blues. In fact, Herbie Hancock had recently referred to Silver's work as "some of the earliest funky music," and the first thing on my mind was to find out what this quality meant to Horace himself.
What does the word "funky" mean to you?
"Funky" means "earthy, blues-based." It may not be blues itself, but it has that down-home feel to it. Playing funky has nothing to do with style; it's an approach to playing. For instance, Herbie Hancock and I have different styles, but we both play funky. "Soul" is the same, basically, but there's an added dimension of feeling and spirit to soul-an in-depthness. A soulful player might be funky or he might not be.
How does the directness of your approach relate to the complexities of bebop?
I've found in composing that being simple and profound-having in-depthness in your music-is the most difficult thing to do. Anybody can write a whole lot of notes, which may or may not say something. Bebop was a good example. From what I've heard, the way bebop got started was in small dives where guys would bug the musicians to let them sit in. The musicians were trying to keep these sad musicians off the stand, so guys like Dizzy or Bird or Monk started writing these complicated lines, so nobody else could play them. That way these sad musicians couldn't be dragging the session. But why make it complicated for the musicians to play? Why make it difficult for the listeners to hear? The hardest thing is to make it simple. What separates the men from the boys is whether your simple lines have profundity in them-whether there's longevity there or whether they're trite.
What kind of background did you have?
I studied, but not as long as I should have. My uncle's girl friend was a piano teacher, and that's where I started. But after I took a half dozen lessons from her, she and my uncle broke up, so that was that. Then I studied for a year with another woman who was giving group lessons. I didn't learn much, but it only cost fifty cents a lesson, which was great for me because I came from a poor family. My third teacher was a classically trained organist at one of the white churches in town [Norwalk, Connecticut], His name was Professor William Scofield. Actually I consider him my only teacher, though I did get bored with classical music. It just wasn't what I wanted to do. He realized I had natural ability, and he wanted me to go to the conservatory, so he was going to get some rich white folks to sponsor me. But I really didn't want to get hung up in that classical thing-though now I wish I had studied with him a little longer, for purely technical reasons.
Do you feel limited technically?
No. I'm not the technician others may be, but my technique is completely adequate for my style. I can play what I hear, and that's all that's necessary. I don't hear all that activity all over the piano, like an Art Tatum. If I wanted to play that way, I'd have to practice, but that's not the way I hear music.
Do you practice a lot?
I practice, but not regularly. When I'm home, most of my time is devoted to composing. Occasionally, if my chops are down, I'll do some whole-tone scales or something from an exercise book, but my chops are usually up because I play so much. I'd recommend practice for anyone who's not out there playing every night.
What did you do for harmony and ear training and who were your influences?
I got a harmony book from a music store and studied basic root positions. An older musician in Norwalk showed me how to embellish chords. Then, having a good ear, I used to take those Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and [saxophonist] Dexter Gordon records on Savoy and put them on an old windup machine and slow the speed down. That would put everything in another key, but I'd hear the chords that way and pick them out note by note. I was playing augmented ninths, flatted ninths, elevenths, diminished chords, and so on without having any idea what they were called. The very first tune I learned was "What Is This Thing Called Love?" I'll never forget it because it took me about five minutes to find C7 in root position. Later on, from Teddy Wilson records, I learned how to play tenths and open the voicing up.
How about melodic ear training?
I used to play a lot of Bud Powell solos off the record, and when I played tenor, I practiced with Lester Young records every day. In fact, I'd go out on gigs and play parts of his solos. In a sense, I'm self-taught; I applied myself. But my teachers were all these great guys on records.
How do you approach accompaniment?
I think a piano player has to like to comp in order to do it well. If you're preoccupied with soloing, if you're just sitting up there halfway feeding the horns, waiting for your turn to solo, you won't be a good comper. You have to enjoy it as much as you enjoy soloing. I love the feeling I get when the rhythm section is really hitting it together. We can make the horn players better, and I don't give a damn how good they are. If we're goosing them in the ass, and the shit is really happening, the piano's digging in, they're sitting there in the palms of our hands. We've got to raise our hands and uplift them to the sky. See, the music's got to float. If we let them go, they'll drop. I've never been one to lay back during horn solos. You shouldn't play with a band if you do that. You ought to play solo or with a trio.
Your playing has evolved since you were with the Stan Getz group in the early fifties.
It's true. I hadn't completely formulated my style at that point. I was very heavily influenced by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and on those Getz records I was also very nervous, a young kid from Connecticut thrust into the studio with all those great names. I started thinking about where I was and who I was with. Being young, I lacked self-confidence, so I got shaky. After I left Getz and stayed in New York for a year, I did a record date with [saxophonist] Lou Donaldson for Blue Note, and I was a little more relaxed. When I listened to those tapes, I heard something in there that was definitely Horace Silver. I didn't know what it was exactly, but I knew that no one else was playing that way, so I decided to work on it. I took my record player and records, packed them up in the closet, and played no records for a long time. I didn't want to be influenced by anybody. I just practiced.
What was it that you recognized as "you" on those early recordings?
It's an intangible thing. I can't even tell you today in verbal terms. I can't put my style into words. Maybe somebody else could, though I might or might not agree with what they came up with.
When did you first get a chance to record your own material?
I was supposed to be on Donaldson's second recording session, but three days before, Alfred Lion called to tell me Lou couldn't make it, and he invited me to do a trio session for them. It was pretty short notice, but I realized it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Fortunately I had a backlog of compositions to draw on, so I didn't have to do any writing. All I had to do was write out some bass parts for Curly Russell and get my own chops together. [This session was eventually released as Horace Silver (Blue Note). It features drummer Art Blakey and conga player Sabu Martinez.]
How did you meet Art Blakey and begin playing with the Jazz Messengers?
I was playing a gig in some club-well, it was a dive really-in New Jersey. We played for a floor show, but our tenor player was working with Art Blakey and the nine-piece band that he had then. I believe that was also called the Messengers. Blakey's piano player was goofing off and not showing up for rehearsals and so on, so the tenor player on our gig brought me over to audition for Art. I got the job, but that band was very short-lived. We could hardly get arrested with that band, let alone find work. We played some dances around Harlem, once a week at the most. The next thing that came along was Art getting a couple of weeks at Birdland. He had been hearing about [trumpeter] Clifford Brown. You know, there were rumors then about this cat in Delaware who played so great. Art just dug him out of there and brought him to New York. Art, Clifford, Lou Donaldson, Curly Russell on bass, and myself - we made that gig in Birdland, and that was how the record A Night at Birdland happened.
We played two weeks in New York, a week in Philadelphia, and that was it for that band. We couldn't get no work, man. None. Clifford went with [drummer] Max Roach. About a year later , Art got a band that lasted, which was the Jazz Messengers, including me, Kenny Dorham, Hank Mobley, and Doug Watkins on bass. That group was together for a year, playing the circuit, New York, Boston, Philly, Washington, and so on. We never made it out to the West Coast. We made the records from the Cafe Bohemia with that group.
Had you ever played with a drummer as powerful as Blakey?
Never. I never worked with one as powerful since either! Well, that's not to say I haven't had strong drummers in my band-like Billy Cobham, Roy Brooks, Louis Hayes. But Art is one of a kind.
How did his playing affect you as a pianist?
It made me much stronger as a rhythm player, especially comping, backing up a soloist. There's another thing Art instilled in me as a player-and not by talking to me but by example! Art never lets up. I've seen him go days without sleep, come down with a bad cold, and no matter what, every time the man goes up on the bandstand, he puts fire to the music and there's no letting up. That rubbed off on me.
Why did you leave that band?
I don't care to go into the reasons why I left because it's personal. It had nothing to do with Art or any person in the band. There weren't any personality clashes. Just personal.
How did your own group get started?
It happened a few months later. I had intended to take a rest and then get a job with another band. But my record "Senor Blues" came out, and it was doing quite well in Philadelphia. This guy asked me to come down and play, but I told him, "I don't have no band, I just made a record, that's all." He said, "Put one together and come down for a week. Let's see what happens." It worked out pretty well. I had Art Taylor on drums, although he only worked that week; then Louis Hayes replaced him. There was Doug Watkins, Art Farmer on trumpet, and Hank Mobley. The "Senor Blues" band was the same, except Donald Byrd replaced Art on trumpet. That happened because Blue Note and Prestige were always feuding with each other, and I guess Bob Weinstock [owner of Prestige] wouldn't let Art record for Alfred Lion [owner of Blue Note]. So here I had a record date and couldn't use my trumpet player. Fortunately Donald Byrd was studying then at the Manhattan School of Music and made the gig.
You've been quoted as saying, "I didn't want to become too pianistic in my approach to the instrument." Is that true?
Yeah, it's true. My influences in music were not all pianists. Of course, 1 played sax at one time, and I'm in love with [saxophonist] Lester Young. I idolize him. And I've always dug Dizzy, Miles, [saxophonists] Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, so many horn players. So I asked myself, "Why does a pianist have to approach the piano pianistically?" There's nothing wrong with approaching it pianistically, of course. It is a piano. Anyway, I love to be different. I might do something just because it's the opposite of what everybody else is doing. Monk doesn't approach the piano in an entirely pianistic way, but he gets some beautiful things out of it, unique things that pianistic players like Oscar Peterson wouldn't even dream of. Look at what Milt Jackson did for the vibes. Until he came along, all the vibes players, except maybe Lionel Hampton, sounded alike. They'd been getting the same tonal quality because they used the same approach. When Milt came along, he realized you could slow down the motor and get a vibrato out of the instrument. That's one of the things, aside from his mastery of the instrument, that gave him a unique sound.
Melodically, then, there's an element of horn playing in your approach. But your accompaniment style seems highly percussive.
It's true in a sense, though I don't consciously think about it in that way. I'm very involved with rhythm, and that's an important part of jazz to me. I like to play around with rhythmic patterns when I'm comping behind horns. I suppose I do have some percussive attack on the piano, but the way I look at it, I'm just trying to be myself and hope to be original.
Do you still feel the need to avoid the influence of other musicians?
Oh, no. I listen to everybody. I always have my radio tuned to [jazz station] KBCA [now KKGO] in Los Angeles. My ears are open to all of it, but when I'm playing, my ears are shut to everyone but me. In your formative years the influences you're absorbing possess you, which is okay when you're young and trying to get it together. But there comes a time when you have to find your own direction. I did that a long time ago, so I don't have to throw my record player in the closet anymore. I can listen to anyone now, and even get ideas from them, without being influenced by them or falling back on them. When you become creative in music-or maybe in anything-the only thing you fall back on for inspiration is the Creator. You do get something from divine sources. Ultimately everybody does. It's just that as a creative musician, you're getting it directly and not through another person who's an "influence."
Are you being metaphorical when you say the source of music is the Creator, or do you mean it literally?
It's a fact of life. Even when I was copying other musicians, trying to learn from their styles—they were possessing me, in a sense-the divine force was coming through them on a higher level than I was able to attain. I was getting the inspiration through them. Now I can get it more directly, from the main source.
The late saxophonist Cannonball Adderley once said he felt like a "vehicle of musical expression," that the music was passing through him.
He's right. The drummer Billy Higgins was quoted as saying, "Music doesn't come from you, it comes through you." That's very profound. Anybody who's trying to create has got to have help. Sometimes when I sit at the piano trying to compose, I feel like a stranger to the instrument. I have no ideas; my mind draws a blank. I wonder if I'm the same man who has written all these other compositions because just then I'm empty. So where does it all come from? I can sit for days without an idea, but if I keep at it and tell myself to get off my ass, it's as if somebody knows I'm trying to write a song and comes over to whisper something in my ear. Suddenly, BAM! The shit just flows. Most of my compositions come at one sitting. Being theoretical, when you sit at the piano you concentrate on the spot on your forehead that represents the third eye. But when the idea hits you, it doesn't hit the third eye. It hits you on the back of your head, the medulla oblongata, or on the top of your head, where the pineal gland is supposed to be. I've thought about this a lot. Maybe a yogi could explain it. I don't know how to explain it, but I know how I feel when I'm writing.
Do you use the piano to compose?
Usually, although I once wrote a tune in Boston on a paper bath mat. That was "You Gotta Take a Little Love." "Psychedelic Sally" came to me in a hotel room somewhere. Those cassette players are invaluable, too. In Detroit once I sang a tune onto a tape and then worked it out on the piano when I got down to the club.
What has your experience been with electric keyboards?
I've done three recordings, a series called The United States of Mind [Vol. 3, Blue Note, is still in print], with vocals, on which I played the RMI. They're fine recordings, but they seem to have got lost in the shuffle because people are still asking me when I'm going to record on electric. I enjoyed the electric for that particular work because of the musical contexts. There's a variety of moods-gospel, Latin, rock, straight-ahead jazz, blues. I was searching for one instrument that could handle all of them. I didn't want to use the Rhodes piano because I'm tired of the sound. Everybody uses it to death. It does have more of a piano action than the RMI, though. The RMI action is more like an organ. It doesn't respond very fast, and you have to hold the key down a long time to hold the note out, so you have to play fairly simply. It has a sustain pedal, but it doesn't sustain very long. What I liked about it was the stops and the variety of sounds you can get by mixing the stops. The one stop on the RMI that I didn't like was the piano stop. It just didn't sound like a piano. I loved the combination of lute and harpsichord, though. I also put a wah-wah on it. When it comes to acoustic instruments, I prefer a Steinway. That's the Cadillac of the piano world. I'll take a Baldwin as a second, though.
Your album Silver 'n Brass is a departure from the quintet format. How do you feel about that album and the large ensemble context?
We laid down the quintet tracks first and then overdubbed the brass. Wade Marcus orchestrated the brass, and I think there's a hairline difference between orchestration and arranging. I arranged the tunes, in a sense, because the harmonies were taken directly from my piano voicings. Wade and I sat down with the tapes, and I'd show him the notes I was using in my comps. Then he'd write it out for the brass, putting everything in the right place. He did a beautiful job. Several musicians told me they went out and bought that album, and when that happens, it's rare. It is a fine recording, and I'm not just saying that because it's mine.
Except for those first trio sessions for Blue Note, you haven't made any albums which actually featured the piano, such as an unaccompanied piano album. Do you think of yourself as an ensemble pianist?
It's just that as a composer, I don't get complete satisfaction out of playing my compositions in trio form. I've been told I have the ability to make two horns sound a lot bigger than two instruments. I try to get that big sound by fooling around with the harmonies, because I've got only five pieces to work with. I get a charge out of hearing the band play my stuff, and it sounds empty to me in a trio, even though I can play all the same notes on the piano.
Do you consider yourself primarily a composer or a pianist?
I feel like both. I hope I'll always do both. I was once asked which I'd choose if somebody were to put a gun to my head and tell me I could only be one or the other. I'd have to choose composing in that case, because there's something 1 receive when I write music, when that tune comes, that rejuvenates my whole system.