I’ll begin my memorial tribute to Horace Silver with “Song for My Father.” With the pianist’s death on Wednesday at age 85, the tune suddenly feels more elegiac, and not only in regard to its composer and his dedicatee, but to an era that is fast slipping away. The term “golden age” has been applied to various timelines in jazz; for many listeners today, it’s most applicable to the hard bop era of the 50’s and ’60’s which Silver helped innovate and popularize. Hard bop may be the most common of stylistic languages among jazz players today, but few of its originators are still with us. Among the many sidemen commonly associated with Silver’s groups, only Louis Hayes springs to mind as a player who’s still active. Silver named 15 pianists as “certain favorites” in his autobiography Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty; alas, of that group, only Barry Harris survives him.
“Song for My Father” was inspired by and dedicated to Silver’s father, who was born John Tavares Silva on the Cape Verdean island of Maio around 1900. He migrated to Norwalk, Connecticut, where Horace was born in 1928. A photo of John illustrates the jacket of the Blue Note album. The song, and the album which shares its name, have been the most successful of Silver’s career; since its release in 1965, he says he played “Song for My Father” at virtually every one of his engagements.
As one of the principal architects of hard bop, Silver came to prominence in the mid-50’s with a combo that featured Kenny Dorham and Hank Mobley. His popularity continued to grow amidst several personnel changes between 1956-’58, then he settled into a five-year period with a quintet featuring Blue Mitchell, Junior Cook, and Gene Taylor. Louis Hayes was its first drummer, then Roy Brooks. This combo’s output included the Blue Note classics Finger Poppin’, and Blowin’ the Blues Away with Hayes, followed by Horace-Scope, Doin’ the Thing, The Tokyo Blues, and Silver’s Serenade. Concert recordings by the quintet from Newport and a tour with Jazz at the Philharmonic have been issued in more recent years.
In his autobiography, Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty, Silver gives little hint as to why he disbanded this exceptionally cohesive quintet. He simply reports, “Eventually, I broke up the Blue Mitchell – Junior Cook band. After all these years, I can’t remember my specific reasons for breaking up the band. Maybe I just wanted to change.”
The group made its final recordings on January 28, 1964. Two weeks later, Silver visited Brazil as a guest of pianist Sergio Mendes. He spent a week at Sergio’s home, followed by a week in Rio at the home of drummer Dom Um Romao and vocalist Flora Purim during Carnival. He writes, “Believe me, Carnival provided much excitement. Rio was a wide-open town during that week. There was singing and dancing in the streets 24 hours a day for the whole week. Masquerade dances were held in ballrooms throughout the city. Prizes were given for best costumes. Several samba schools were competing for first prize…I was told that some of the very poorest people in Rio, who lived in the mountainside shacks called favelas, would do without things to save their money so that they could buy the materials to make fabulous costumes for Carnival.” Ring a bell, New Orleanians?
Silver continues, “After returning home to New York from my visit with Sergio and Dom Um, I was haunted by the bossa nova rhythm I had heard in Brazil. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to try to write a song using that rhythmic concept.’ I sat down at the piano for a few hours and came up with a new song using the bossa nova rhythm. However, the melody didn’t sound Brazilian to me; it sounded more like some of the old Cape Verdean melodies my dad had played. Dad had always wanted me to take some of the old Cape Verdean songs and do jazz interpretations of them. This didn’t appeal to me, but when I realized I had written a new song with a Brazilian rhythmic concept and a Cape Verdean melodic concept, I immediately thought about dedicating the song to Dad. So I titled it ‘Song for My Father’.”
Silver recorded “Song for My Father” on October 26, 1964, with the quintet he formed upon his return from Rio. It included Teddy Smith on bass, Roger Humphries on drums, and an unsung master, Carmell Jones, on trumpet. The group’s standout soloist was tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, who’d burst on the scene a year earlier with Kenny Dorham’s quintet. Henderson was the ideal choice for Silver. Short of recruiting Stan Getz, with whom Silver came to prominence in the early ’50’s, Henderson was the most adept tenor man on the scene at playing Brazilian rhythms. His debut as a leader, Page One, featured his original samba, “Recorda Me,” and the premiere of Dorham’s classic, “Blue Bossa.”
The jazz critic Kenny Mathieson, author of Cookin': Hard Bop and Soul Jazz, notes that “Song for My Father’s” minor mood “works against the usual gaiety associated with the bossa nova to create an unusual and striking effect. The fusion of elements evident in ‘Song for My Father’ reveals a musician at the height of his powers, comfortable with his materials, sure of his direction.” The tune’s infectious opening vamp was borrowed by Steely Dan for its first hit, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” while Stevie Wonder used the opening horn riff on “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” Henderson’s hugely influential tenor solo is an enduring highlight of Silver’s catchy original.
Here’s a 1968 performance of “Song for My Father” by a Silver quintet with trumpeter Bill Hardman, bassist John Williams, and 24-year-old Billy Cobham, here at his finest on drums. Bennie Maupin was in the tenor chair by this time, and while Henderson’s were big shoes to fill, Maupin creates an outstanding solo of his own on this expansive take.