By Froma Harrop
A jazz great died this month. Though revered by fans around the world, Horace Silver is not a household name in his own country, where the popular taste tends more toward rock and country than it does toward jazz. Silver’s most widely recognizable tune, “Song for My Father,” is recognizable mainly because the rock band Steely Dan used it in the opening riff of one of their biggest hits, “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.”
No mention of that was made at Silver’s memorial service at St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I attended with a friend, who knew Silver since high school in Norwalk, Connecticut. Silver had apparently chosen this church for his service because it reminded him of the black churches back home.
People were there to note the passing of a uniquely talented saxophonist turned jazz pianist and composer. And without saying it, they lamented the fading of a jazz culture in which black musicians would gather in hotel rooms near the Apollo Theater in Harlem to share ideas and jam. And regular people piled in to the clubs.
Silver was born in 1928. His father was an immigrant from Cape Verde, a collection of Portuguese-speaking islands off the coast of Africa. The family name, Silva, had been Anglicized to Silver.
A worker in a rubber factory, Silver’s father urged Horace to pursue music as one of the few avenues for success then open to ambitious young blacks. After joining his dad for two weeks in the rubber factory, Silver decided to take his advice.
And advice was not all that he took from his father. Silver grew up surrounded by the rich music of Cape Verde. His 1965 song “The Cape Verdean Blues” became a hit long before there was a thing called world music. Back then, Cesaria Evora was still singing on cruise ships.
Silver’s music is a mix of African, Latin, jazz and a whole lot of gospel. He helped create the genre of hard bop — a reaction to the low-passion cool jazz of the 1950s.
He was a spiritual being. My friend described him as unassuming and contemplative — “not your typical jazz wild man.”
There was very little dish on Silver. He combined musical greatness with personal goodness. A devoted family man, Silver dodged the drugs of the bebop era. He was inner-directed, doing his thing without caring much for changing fashions in music or worrying about his position on the charts.
And that’s why he died of natural causes at age 85.
But where goest jazz? It doesn’t lack for brilliant new practitioners. At the service, young musicians matched their elders in performances of Silver’s works.
And the followers of jazz are ardent as ever. Their numbers are the concern. The National Endowment for the Arts published a survey in 2008 showing that the audience for jazz was getting smaller and older.
In an essay titled “Can Jazz Be Saved?”, arts critic Terry Teachout noted that Duke Ellington and Miles Davis are now being taught in public schools and their works performed in the great concert halls. In 1987, Congress passed a resolution touting jazz as a “rare and valuable national American treasure.”
But it’s not a good sign for an art form when the NEA worries about its declining audience, when Congress feels a need to give it a thumbs-up and when it gets taught in the schools. It’s not a good sign when music is called an art form.
As the jazz world of Horace Silver passes on, the music, of course, remains. Will ordinary Americans again love this sophisticated, uniquely American (OK) art form without feeling they ought to?
Froma Harrop is a Providence Journal columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com