Tag: sidemen

Memories of Horace Silver (1928-2014)

[Ed. Note: Composer, pianist, and bandleader Horace Silver (1928-2014) had a career that spanned half a century. As the co-founder (with Art Blakey) of the Jazz Messengers, which would become a de-facto training ground for generations of musicians, he had a profound impact on the performance practice of jazz. As a composer and bandleader, he basically defined the sound world of hard bop in the 1950s and ’60s through his live performances and numerous recordings. Between 1953 and 1969, Blue Note released a total of 17 albums under Silver’s own name plus 23 albums featuring him as a sideman, making him one of the most widely recorded artists of that period. In Silver’s later career, he continued to evolve an idiosyncratic musical vocabulary that incorporated a wide range of musical genres. Between 1970 and his last recording session on December 18, 1998, an additional 20 albums were released under his name, most devoted exclusively to his own compositions. He was named an NEA Jazz Master in 1995. When we learned of his death on June 18, 2014, we thought the best way to honor his memory on NewMusicBox was to have someone who performed with him share memories of his music and life. There will be a memorial service at St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church in New York City on July 7, 2014, at 7 p.m. More details are available on Horace Silver’s website.—FJO]

I learned a lot from Horace Silver.

1978 was a good year. I recorded my first album as a leader, had my 30th birthday, and joined the Horace Silver quintet. Having the birthday was easy, unlike the other two things.

I got the job with Horace by winning an invitation-only audition. It was a two-day, old-fashioned shootout where the last man standing got the job. That guy turned out to be me, although by then I was sort of crouching rather than standing.
Horace called me that night to tell me I was hired and to give me the upcoming itinerary. I had a drink, subbed out or cancelled the gigs I already had in the book, pissed off the required number of people, and hit the sack. Horace held two rehearsals and we hit the road.

Horace Silver at piano, John McNeil on trumpet

Horace Silver at the piano with John McNeil on trumpet in 1978. Photo courtesy John McNeil.

Horace wrote great tunes that have a way of improving you harmonically and rhythmically if you play them frequently (or every night, in my case). He also liked very fast tempos, and if you weren’t on top of it you’d get rolled right over.
It goes without saying, then, that I learned a lot harmonically and technically. Much of what I learned from Horace Silver, however, was not music in the technical sense. These things helped me to become a leader and turned out to be as important as improving my grasp of harmony and my execution. I thought I would share some of them with you here.

First of all, Horace believed in rehearsal. The band would never play anything in public that we hadn’t rehearsed and gotten completely ironed out. In addition, he didn’t allow you to read music on the bandstand—everything had to be memorized. He felt that reading looked unprofessional, like you weren’t prepared or the band was just thrown together.

Perhaps more importantly, Horace also felt that music stands put a barrier between the performer and the audience. Many older musicians agree with that, as do I. In situations where I have the authority, I always require the music to be memorized, and I have fired or not re-hired players who didn’t go along with it.

Horace’s book was pretty easy for us to memorize, because we either knew or had heard most of the tunes. The only real problem was when he introduced new tunes while we were on tour. We would rehearse in the afternoon at the club we were playing, and then we were expected to play the new stuff from memory that night.

If the tunes were straightforward enough, nobody had much of a problem. But Horace had started writing some quirky tunes that didn’t fall into any familiar pattern, and some would have chord changes that were essentially polychords written out like voicings. You really had to sweat to remember all the details of tunes like that.

For me, the worst one was this long composition with no solos in it. It was through-composed with some inner sections that repeated. I couldn’t keep it straight, so I asked Horace if I could take the music back to the hotel to study it and he consented. That night on the gig I put the music on the floor in front of me and studied it when I wasn’t actually playing. When we finally played the tune, I was shaky but made it through. After the set, a woman came up to me and said how remarkable it was to see someone concentrate so deeply, even between tunes. I think I said something like, “Yeah, well, it’s a gift, you know?”

Respect and musical etiquette were very important to Horace. For instance, he was a real stickler for being on time. He said right at the beginning, “I’ll never ask you cats to work one extra minute without getting paid for it. In return, when it’s time to start, you have to be onstage ready to play. Start on time, end on time, period. If you’re late, it’s twenty-five bucks.” This was still the 1970s, don’t forget; twenty-five bucks was significant.

The on-time rule also applied to getting back to the bandstand after a break. I ran afoul of this one time when I had been busy at the bar, chatting up a member of the opposite sex. All of a sudden I heard Horace play a little arpeggio and realized everyone was on the bandstand but me. I rushed up on stage and as I went by the piano, Horace, without looking up, said, “Twenty-five bucks. Good lookin’ though.”

The thing is, being on time wasn’t just some rigid rule of his. What really mattered to Horace was that being late and keeping other musicians waiting was disrespectful.

Another thing that was considered disrespectful—and still should be—was bringing your troubles to the bandstand. Whatever was going on in your life, whatever you were feeling or thinking, all of it had to stop at the edge of the stage. You bring your “A” game every time, at least in terms of effort. In Horace’s words, “Everybody else shouldn’t have to have a bad day just because you have one.”

Horace also had a lot of practical advice about things not directly related to music. For example, he said that if somebody asks for an advance, give them more than they ask for, because they’re probably asking for less than they need and then they’ll have to come back a second time. Or something like that. As a leader, I actually found that to be weird but true.

Since he was a human being, Horace Silver was not always wise in his dealings with others. He believed that if someone didn’t understand English, he could make them understand by simply speaking louder. He could be overly controlling, slow to pick up a check, quick to take offense—all the normal failings people have.

But in the things that really count, Horace was courageous and stood very tall when it was needed. He was a man of his word and always backed his musicians.

The following pretty much says it all.

Because it was still the 1970s, Horace took a lot of heat for hiring white musicians. Some in his black audiences didn’t dig the idea of any white person playing in a band led by a black man and playing black music, and they let Horace know about it.
We were playing Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in Detroit, and during a break I was standing at the bar with Horace (he was probably having a coke, I never saw him drink alcohol) and I was asking him something about Charlie Parker. Odd how you remember stuff like that!

Anyway, we’re standing there talking and this large African-American dude walks up and pushes himself between Horace and me, facing Horace and giving me his back. I remember this like it was yesterday. He said, “Horace, man, why you usin’ these white boys to play your music?”

Horace looked up at the guy and said, “I use them because they can play. Now, you’re interrupting a conversation I’m having with my friend.”

The guy left. The subject was never mentioned.

Culture Counter Culture


The Rake’s Progress: In the Madhouse (1735) by William Hogarth

I’ve often lamented becoming a professional musician, but not because of the poor pay or the way that one is perceived by those who “don’t get it,” but rather because I seldom get to go hear music or attend events that I’d like to because of work. Of course, a higher tax bracket might be nice. (It might even help me pay off the student loans.) But that’s not why I got into music in the first place, and it’s certainly not going to be the reason I quit, if I quit, which I have no plans to do at this time, anyway. Besides, music is something that humans do independently of the money stream. In fact, it’s something we’ve done long before money was part of our consciousness. But, please, until we have a different way of negotiating our ever globalized culture, don’t take this to mean that I’m offering to work for free; let it not be said that Ratzo B. Harris can’t be bought! At least for the time being. But I also say this because today’s world of music, while filled with heartfelt respect and affection, is also filled with contradictions and subterfuge that can lead many to psychic states ranging from hilarious disbelief to despondent bitterness. I myself have personally heard stories and seen examples of aspiring music students who were told by their composition teachers that certain techniques or combinations of instruments in the student’s homework cannot work, only to find the discarded lessons’ failings featured large in their professors’ next masterpieces. And it was Igor Stravinsky who was supposed to have said, “Good composers borrow, great composers steal,” an adage he apparently borrowed as a misquoting of T. S. Eliot. (Maybe he was mitigating his signature “Petrushka chord.”)
This sour-ish sounding theme was inspired by several things that have transpired in the last week, not the least of which were the controversial resignations of two prestigious members of the Minnesota Orchestra and the impending bankruptcy of the New York City Opera. While music will go on somewhere and somehow, the loss of the latter will probably go unnoticed among the majority of New York City residents, much as the falling from grace and potential demise of the former will not be considered important by most the minions of Minneapolis. On the national scene, the issue is hardly an issue at all. To most Americans, New York music is about Broadway shows and male vocalists in front of big bands, while Minneapolis is about an artist known as Prince. Never mind that the labor dispute of the Minneapolis Orchestra is a microcosmic mirror of the nation’s economic woes, or that the New York City Opera illustrates how musicians’ giving of their talents so that all can hear great music will not go unpunished. Our culture is far too saturated with music. Americans don’t need to think too hard—or too long—about what they hear to be able to hum an almost reasonable facsimile of it while going about their daily activities. It’s a case of not enough people knowing why (or even how) to give a damn to make a difference in the outcomes of these two institutions. Now if Sir Paul initiated a Kickstarter campaign to fund his next orchestral work, that would be a worthy cause!

It’s no wonder that—after years of practice, study, networking, brainstorming, and mostly thankless hard work—many musicians toss in the towel and take up “real” careers, such as selling real estate or teaching. But, as William Shakespeare once pointed out, a “musician’s melancholy is fantastical,” and many musicians, whether or not they give up the ghost, become depressed about the state of the art. After all, it’s a very competitive business that often demands that a process of mental and emotional compartmentalization take place to cope with the stress of getting, and keeping, work. This was driven home to me when I found out that a younger musician I know has been hospitalized for mental trauma associated with trying to negotiate the music scene. While I’m not privy to all of the details, I am reminded of great musicians of the past who befell similar situations: Robert Schumann, Hugo Wolf, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and Charles Mingus were all institutionalized for being “touched by the gods.” The fact is that most musicians are intelligent and sensitive individuals who can easily be shaken to the core, especially when the “real world” delivers one of its brutal and devastating blows. The case of Butch Warren, whose career is marked with bouts of depression is an example. Another important figure is bassist James Jamerson, the only musician on Motown Record’s roster kept on a retainer. He felt that his true talent was as an acoustic bassist, but because almost all of his recording work was done on the electric bass guitar, he felt artistically stifled and eventually drank himself to death. I know, though, that one can break through the feelings of despair and hopelessness and will work and pray for my colleague’s imminent recovery.

One of the most iconic sagas of a musician caught between the rock-and-hard-place of art and life is that of Billie Holiday. (Whatever you do, don’t believe the story presented in the movie Lady Sings the Blues. In a class about her that was taught by Dr. Lewis Porter, it was proven that the only two things accurately represented in it were: 1) there was a person who called herself Billie Holiday and 2) she could sing. Instead read the book Billie Holiday: Wishing On the Moon, by Donald Clarke. Even though his writing is more than a bit judgmental, he sticks a little closer to the truth than the movie or Holiday’s autobiography, from which the aforementioned movie took its name.) She was invoked in a comment from last week as the first African American vocalist to be featured in a band led by a white musician, Artie Shaw. I would qualify the statement by pointing out the fact that it was a big band that Shaw led. Holiday had already recorded with Benny Goodman in smaller ensembles as early as 1933. (Holiday joined Shaw’s organization in 1938, after an unsatisfying stint with Count Basie’s orchestra. Her associations with Goodman and Basie were brokered by John Hammond, who was Holiday’s manager at the time.) Her life and career traveled a tightrope of drug and alcohol addiction due to fake id use, coupled with abusive relationships that devastated her body and voice. Still, she was an outspoken critic of racism both on and off the bandstand.

The commenter also brought his own college-days experience of studying with one of Artie Shaw’s alto saxophonists, Hank Freeman. Freeman also played in bands led by Glenn Miller and Bunny Berigan and recorded extensively. The irony of that commenter’s being “ignorantly unimpressed” with Freeman’s credentials was what struck me the most. I, too, have been guilty of being ignorant of the stature of many of the musicians I’ve worked with and for. Being primarily a free-lance musician, I tend to walk into situations cold and learn about the people I’m hired to work with as the job goes along. The idea of the importance to American music of a large group of relatively unknown sidemen as being at least as equal to the “name” they’re supporting is one that should be looked at more closely. In the next several upcoming posts I plan to compare and contrast several.