Jazz Legend Horace Silver Dead at 85

Horace Silver
Gilles Petard/Redferns

Photo of Horace Silver with piano in 1959.  

Jazz pianist Horace Silver, a progenitor of the style known as hard bop and whose piano riff in "Song for My Father" was the backbone of Steely Dan's biggest hit, died June 18 at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y. He was 85.

Working with the drummer Art Blakey, he co-founded the prototype of hard bop bands, the Jazz Messengers in 1953, integrating elements of blues and gospel within the bright tempos and virtuosity favored in bebop. On their first album, released in 1954, Silver wrote all but one of the songs, then left the band a year later to go solo.

Between 1955 and 1980, Silver made more than 20 records for Blue Note, among them revered titles such as "Song for My Father" in 1964, "Blowin' the Blues Away" in 1959 and "The Jody Grind" in 1966. His bands often featured the trumpeter Blue Mitchell and tenor saxophonist Junior Cook.

During his fertile period with Blue Note, Silver wrote the hard bop classics "Song for My Father," "Senor Blues," "The Preacher" and "Filthy McNasty." His funky, melodic style as a composer and pianist had significant commercial appeal at a time when jazz was splintering into factions and fading from the mainstream. His "Song for My Father (Cantiga Para Meu Pai)" hit No. 95 on the Billboard 200 in 1965 and year later "The Cape Verdean Blues" reached No. 130.

Four of his Blue Note albums made it onto the label's "100 essential jazz albums" list issued earlier this year as part of its 75th anniversary celebration.

"Horace Silver's music has always represented what jazz musicians preach but don't necessarily practice, and that's simplicity," bassist Christian McBride told NPR in 2008. "It sticks to the memory; it's very singable. It gets in your blood easily; you can comprehend it easily. It's very rooted, very soulful."

Those qualities certainly appealed to Steely Dan's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker who used the opening bars of "Song for My Father" as a motif in their "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." Released in 1974, the song would peak at No. 4, the highest charting of their 15 hits in the top 100.

Born in Connecticut in 1928, Silver learned from his Portuguese father who taught him folk music from Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa. The saxophonist Stan Getz was the first musician to hire him and Lou Donaldson tapped Silver for his first recording, a 1952 session for Blue Note.

Just as Blakey left the door open for young musicians with the Jazz Messengers, Silver, too, introduced the world to numerous musicians who would go on to become leaders. Trumpeters Donald Byrd, Woody Shaw and Randy Brecker and the saxophonists Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker and Benny Golson and the singer Andy Bey worked with Silver early in their careers.

In the 1970s, Silver explored spiritual issues, integrating singers, contemporary funk and subjects that turned off many fans of his earlier work; Silver remained on the label until it went on hiatus. Silver formed his own labels in the 1980s before returning to Columbia in 1993 and then recording for Universal's Impulse imprint.

In 2005, Silver received the President's Merit Award from the Recording Academy.

He is survived by his son, Gregory.