Mining Silver 

Wednesday, Nov 10 1999
IN A TIDY MALIBU NEIGHBORHOOD ABOVE THE OLD Getty Museum, the man who dreamed up the hard-bop movement of jazz, Horace Silver, lives alone in a house surrounded by images. Entire walls are dedicated to artwork, much of it done by lifelong friend Carol Forbes, much of it given to him over the years by admirers, much of it, including Paula Donohue's original watercolor for the cover of Blowin' the Blues Away, representing the pianist himself. His trademark shock of hair, seen hanging over his forehead almost to the piano keys in photos from the '50s, is today pulled neatly back.

Other walls are devoted to Silver's inspirations and colleagues, especially in the music room, where his piano is cluttered with portraits of musical and spiritual influences. Fats Waller hangs near Teddy Wilson; Nat Cole and Art Tatum are poorly drawn by a fan. Scriabin looks sharp, even in photocopy. Judy Garland keeps a watchful eye behind Paramhansa Yogananda.

At 71, Silver still shapes the image of jazz. The man who composed "Señor Blues," "Nica's Dream," "Sister Sadie," "Doodlin'" and the others that defined the jazz-funk movement of the late '50s and early '60s has a new album out on Verve, Jazz Has a Sense of Humor, a likewise funky collection with a quintet that includes trumpeter Ryan Kisor and drummer Willie Jones III. Blue Note has just released the four-CD Retrospective, which spans his quarter-century association with the label. Films, notably Double Jeopardy and Election, have begun to utilize his themes. Though health problems have kept him from live appearances -- he spent time in the hospital earlier this year with blood clots in his lungs -- Silver is chipper as he shows off his collection of memorabilia.

"Here's something interesting," he says, pulling a gold-framed document from among the family pictures on a bookshelf, many with the familiar face of his father, the dapper gentleman seen on the cover of Silver's landmark recording Song for My Father. "It's the birth certificate of the brother I never met, who died when he was 6 months old," he says. "I found it in my father's things after he passed away." Then, with an impish smile, he confides that he's communicated with that brother at times over the years.

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Silver makes no secret of his spiritual leanings. In late October, as the guest of honor at Dr. Art Davis' annual music-scholarship award dinner at a tony Orange County restaurant, Silver didn't deliver the usual work-hard, buy-Microsoft, plan-your-retirement sort of pep talk to the winning young players. "Listen to your intuition," he instructed. "Listen to the voices inside your head. Pay attention to your dreams -- they are given by a higher source."

SILVER, WHO ALIENATED SOME FANS IN THE '70s WITH his series of metaphysical albums, "The United States of Mind," pays close attention to his dreams. "I keep a pad and pencil by the bed so I can write them down. Dreams are given to us symbolically; you have to interpret what they're saying."

Music sometimes visits him in his sleep. "It's happened that I'll dream eight bars of a tune and then wake up and write them down or go to the piano and record it. I still have to write the bridges and changes, put it together, but the tune itself comes from the dream.

"Sometimes I'll get a complete tune. 'Diggin' With Dexter' came to me that way. I had dreamt about Dexter one night, and in the dream he was playing this tune in a nightclub. I heard the whole thing; he was on the bandstand and I heard him play this tune note for note, and I got up right away and put it down on my tape recorder. It was like taking dictation."

Sometimes, as in the case of "Song for My Father," melodies have come to him from over the years. Silver's father was Portuguese and hailed from the Cape Verdean isle of Maio. Silver remembers sitting on the steps of their home and listening to his father play folk music on guitar or violin. "My father always wanted me to take one of those Cape Verdean songs and give it a jazz interpretation. But I never did it; they never reached me that much. Then I went to Brazil and hung out with Sergio Mendes during Carnaval, and âI got turned on to the bossa nova and tried to write something in that vein. I was using the bossa nova rhythm, but when I came up with the melody, it didn't sound Brazilian, it sounded Cape Verdean."

The gospel side of his hard-bop lexicon came from his mother, who died when he was 9. "My father was Catholic, a Latin person, and he brought me up as a Catholic. But my mother was a black Methodist, and I went to her church, too. And I liked the music better there, because it swung more, it was get-down-to-the-nitty-gritty-type music."

The gospel influence has remained with Silver through the years and is abundantly present on Jazz Has a Sense of Humor. Silver says he's already written the music for his next project, but adamant- ly refuses to reveal its theme. "In your dreams," he laughs.

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