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Remembering Horace Silver, his music and our meeting

Horace Silver
Horace Silver
Horace Silver

It is with genuine sadness this morning that I note the passing of jazz giant Horace Silver. Here’s the lead on his New York Times obit.

Horace Silver, a pianist, composer and bandleader who was one of the most popular and influential jazz musicians of the 1950s and ’60s, died on Wednesday at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 85.
His death was announced by Blue Note Records, the company for which he recorded from 1952 to 1979.
After a high-profile apprenticeship with some of the biggest names in jazz, Mr. Silver began leading his own group in the mid-1950s and quickly became a big name himself, celebrated for his clever compositions and his infectious, bluesy playing. At a time when the refined, quiet and, to some, bloodless style known as cool jazz was all the rage, he was hailed as a leader of the back-to-basics movement that came to be called hard bop.
Hard bop and cool jazz shared a pedigree: They were both variations on bebop, the challenging, harmonically intricate music that changed the face of jazz in the 1940s. But hard bop was simpler and more rhythmically driven, with more emphasis on jazz’s blues and gospel roots. The jazz press tended to portray the adherents of cool jazz (most of them West Coast-based and white) and hard bop (most of them East Coast-based and black) as warring factions. But Mr. Silver made an unlikely warrior.

My favorite Silver album is “Doin’ the Thing,” recorded at the Village Gate in 1961.It just cooks from start to finish – there’s something equally remarkable and intangible in the interaction between the audience and Silver’s quintet (which features Junior Cook and Blue Mitchell) and the selections are among his best (“Filthy McNasty,” “Kiss Me Right,” “The Gringo”).
Of course, it doesn’t hurt to note that I actually once met Silver.
To be honest, I didn’t fully understand who I was meeting; my jazz education had barely begun. Moreover, in revisiting that encounter in recent days, I began to appreciate not so much Silver’s music but the man who introduced me to it (and him), Mel Williams.
I met Mel on the radio shortly after I moved back to Northern California in early 1991. He hosted a jazz show Fridays on my local public radio station, KUOP. From 6-9 p.m., Mel spun the best in bop and hard bop, filling the Central Valley airwaves with the sound of Sonny Rollins, Stanley Turrentine and, to be sure, Horace Silver.
Music, however, was only half the equation – there was also Mel’s distinctive radio style. He possessed a sandy yet mellifluous voice and listening to him you innately understood that spinning jazz on the air was not just a pastime but something deeper – a calling. You realized instantly that Mel knew all about jazz’s ability to ease your cares and ennoble your spirit.
And he appreciated his listeners, whether they shared his grasp of jazz’s power or were simply hungry novices (like myself). “Good evening, my wonderful listening audience,” each program would begin. He called the show “The World of Mel Williams” and that’s just what he created over those three hours. Great way to start your weekend and expand your horizons.
I’m sure I was told at some point, but I don’t recall now where Mel met Silver. (Mel played sax himself so it’s safe to assume they knew each other from the road.) The men were certainly pals – Mel would travel to the Bay Area whenever Silver was playing and Silver regularly recorded bumpers for Mel’s show. (“This is Horace Silver and whenever I’m in the Central Valley…”).
As the local arts reporter, I wrote about KUOP from time to time so I’d met Mel. One day, he called to let me know Silver would be stopping by the studio. Did I want to meet him?
My knowledge of Silver’s work at that point was limited mainly to what I’d learned from Mel, but I went down to the studio on Friday afternoon to meet him. I wish I could report that the conversation changed my life but, really, about all I remember was the banner Mel had put up welcoming Horace to the station. I’m not even sure of the year (’94? ’95?). I asked questions, tried to give the impression I possessed more knowledge of jazz than I did and went home to the wife and kids.
KUOP changed formats in the late ‘90s, moving from a community station to more of a standard public radio affiliate. Most of the hosts lost their shows in the switch, including Mel, shown the door after 13 years. He died shortly afterward in 1999 at age 69.
His voice, however, has not been completely silenced thanks to his Modesto Radio Museum page, which includes an audio clip. As for me, it’s taken a decade to realize all that Mel did for me – and meeting Horace Silver was just a small part of it.

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