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The Lord of Funk

« Funky, what do you mean , funky ?You take a bath everyday…”[1] This is Horace Silver father’s reaction when he read U.S. jazz monthly  Downbeat’s story on his son the pianist. A rather amusing reply for the musician and composer, considering his own way of life. This is what he writes in his autobiographical book, Let’s Get to the Nitty-Gritty.[2] Horace was raised in a somewhat strict family circle – his father being of Cape Verde extraction – and will abide by the rules all his life : no booze, no drugs, no smoking, along with health food and lots of vitamins. When he was around 20, his friendly neighbors nicknamed him “Nature Boy” after the  hit song by Nat King Cole. Quite a monk-like life, with the exception of his much more active love life. Even though, as he himself writes, Horace Silver has had only one true love in his life, “Lady Music”.

Funk…or Soul? To get back to what people called at this time this hard bop variety of the early sixties, even scholars are a loss. In the April 1961 issue of Jazz Magazine, Michel-Claude Jalard tries to set the record straight: “Soul seems to stem in a natural way from what was called recently funky. Jazzmen tend to substitute the word soul in lieu of funky, an extremely trivial adjective with a strong stench connotation.”

So, as of February 1959, we are still at the funk level. Well, soul or funk, let’s give the final word to Horace himself, speaking at the same time to Jazz Hot Magazine: “All it takes to a musician is to have soul (Jazz Hot translation: funk…) that’s all that matters. And, as a man, all I’ll ask from him is to be clean…” A good hygiene of the body and the mind, the preacher looks after his flock.

This Saturday the 14th of February, it’s Valentine’s Day. In a few days, Fidel Castro will become prime minister of Cuba. Texas Instruments will create the first memory chip. Elvis Presley, who is serving in the U.S. Army in Germany, is getting ready for his next leave in Paris, including a visit to the Lido chorus line girls. Horace Silver and his men arrive in Paris under a pleasantly mild Parisian weather. This is their first European tour, with a rather light agenda: Paris on the 14th, then on to Marseille on the 23rd, Lyon on the 24th, and a sidestep to San Remo, Italy on the 20th. While the quintet is in Paris, it’s set to play also for several dozens of jammed lucky customers in the world-known Club Saint Germain.

The pianist is in essence a quiet and reserved person. And yet he really could have something to boast about: The French audience already knows and likes him – For Those Who Dig Jazz, the top-rated radio show on Europe N°1 Station hosted by Frank Ténot and Daniel Filipacchi has strongly supported him: “When we found an interesting new musician such as Horace Silver, we would immediately play his records heavily” confirms Daniel to Jean-Louis Ginibre.[3] In 1959, Silver has already played with top names in jazz such as Cannonball Adderley, Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Jackson, Quincy Jones, or Lester Young…

Just before flying off to Europe Horace Silver has recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s New-Jersey studio his latest album, Finger Poppin’, with his brand new quintet: Blue Mitchell (tp), Junior Cook (ts), Eugene Taylor (b), Louis Hayes (ds). This group remains the epitome of all of Silver’s quintets – the longest lasting one as well. “Sweet Stuff”, the number that the musicians play for the first time at the Olympia, is part of this new album.

The rest of the set list of the two well-attended concerts, at 6PM and midnight, is carefully chosen, with a vast majority of well-known numbers.  Horace Silver performs them with spirit, “a puny guy with a lock of hair dangling in front of his ecstatic eyes, his hands jerking about and his feet madly dancing around the stool. With a kind of demonic rage, he punched dry notes into the keyboard, short phrases that his left hand backed with power.”  (Jean Pierre Binchet, Jazz Magazine, N°87)

”Room 608” was Horace’s room number at the Arlington Hotel in New-York in the mid-fifties. This is where he composed the tune, along with “Doodlin’” and “The Preacher”. The place was a favorite of Miles Davis, Duke Jordan or Art Farmer. Miles really loves “Doodlin’”, recalls Horace: “I had just written it, and we played it for the first time that night (at Basin Street). Miles came up to me after the set and said, “Man, that tune ‘Doodlin’’ is so funky. If I was a bitch, I’d give you some pussy”…I’ll always remember the great compliment that Miles Davis paid me. At Birdland, he came over to me and said that drummer Louis Hayes and I were thoroughbreds.”

“The Preacher” is probably the epitome of “Silverian” themes. The funny thing is that it was almost never recorded. When the owners of Blue Note Records, Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff, listened to the tune at an early rehearsal in 1955, they thought it sounded too much like  Dixieland music, and they suggested to suppress it  and jam a blues in its place. Horace Silver and Art Blakey so strongly insisted that “The Preacher” finally got recorded.

“Senor Blues” is from late ’56, and, along with “Song for My Father”, Silvers’ two best-selling tunes. Both are in reference to Silver’s father, John Tavares Silva, who raised him on his own with a grandaunt after Horace’s mother died when he was 9.

Silver enjoyed travelling a lot. Throughout the decade, he went all over the world, in countries such as   Japan (an inspiration to “Tokyo Blues”) or Brazil, where he was invited by his friend, the pianist Sergio Mendes. When he returned from that trip having experienced the Rio Carnival, he was “haunted by the rhythm of bossa-nova” and composed “Song for My Father” – which in fact sounds more like the old Cape Verdean melodies that his dad used to play. Silver came back to Paris in October 1962, then in late ’68 for a European Tour sponsored by the U.S. Government. He then returned to the city only in 1995, when Dee Dee Bridgewater recorded a full album of his tunes “Love and Peace: A Tribute to Horace Silver”. The pianist plays on two of the tracks; one of them is “Song for My Father”.

This trip back to France had a very emotional moment: Horace Silver’s reunion with Allison LaFontaine, one of his goddaughters, which he hadn’t seen in a long time. Allison is the granddaughter of the Russells, Silver’s old friends in Connecticut. She still lives in Paris, and is somewhat moved at the memory of her godfather: “As a child, I used to see him at my parents’ place. There he was himself, a simple, natural man… When he came back into my life, in 1995, it was a very important moment for me. I took care of him; I had a small Peugeot 80 scooter, and he was willing, so, he rode in the back of me from his hotel in the Montmartre area to Dee Dee’s place… I believe he did a gig at the Zenith at that time, and he also played at the Blue Note… He was a humble and open-minded man. He was in fact my spiritual father.”

Horace Silver died on June 18, 2014, in New Rochelle, New-York. At the end of his autobiography, he really wanted to quote some verses from “My Spirit’s With You”, an excerpt from “Message for the Maestro”, the suite he composed in tribute to Duke Ellington:

Composer, composer, the melody’s closer now.

Look over your shoulder, don’t worry, I’ll show you how.

My spirit’s with you, leading you on.

My spirit’s with you, so go ahead and write your song.



[1] The word funk initially referred (and still refers) to a strong body odor. And, as soul singer Wilson “The Wicked” Pickett explains Gerri Hirshey in her wonderful book on Soul Music, “Nowhere to Run”: “Once, funk was something you do in the dark with very basic equipment…”  (Da Capo Press, 1994)

[2] By Horace Silver; University of California Press, 2006. Most of the verbatim mentioned here are excerpts from this book.

[3] Les Années Jazz Magazine, Filipacchi Editions, 1994