Horace Silver: Education of a young jazz musician

Horace Silver. Photo thanks to Blue Note Records.
Horace Silver. Photo thanks to Blue Note Records.

By Saul Richardson, 2016.

Horace Silver was one of the jazz Greats. As a young child, before the age of ten, he took piano lessons. His first teacher was “Miss Elsie”. Three weeks after starting he wanted to quit when he realised it would involve hard work and practice. Luckily his father made him continue (they had found a piano for him and neighbours with a truck to help move it in). His next teacher was “Miss Tillie” and then his third and longer-term teacher was “Professor William Schofield”. Schofield was quite strict and insisted that Silver prepared for each lesson, practiced and developed effective technique: “He was strict. If you didn’t have your lessons prepared or if you made too many mistakes, he would holler at you or sometimes curse and crack your knuckles with a ruler. ” His high school band teacher Alton Freiley also was a stickler for good technique: “He was strict but fair..he taught me how to breath from the diaphragm”.

All through junior high school and high school he studied both piano and tenor sax, playing sax in school band and taking music and band as a school subject. Music was an important part of the cultural life of his family. This positive background was enhanced by listening to jazz on the radio, often furtively after “lights out” as a pre-teen. He decided he wanted to become a musician after hearing the Jimmie Lunceford big band playing live. He and his father weren’t allowed inside the marquee where the band was performing because of the degenerate racism rife in America at the time. But they joined a small crowd outside where they could hear the music. In addition to his lessons and study of music at school and participation in school band, he listened extensively, did some transcribing and played jazz with like-minded peers. He also was allowed sometimes to “sit in” with more experienced players at some of their gigs.

This pattern of early education seems to be very common among successful jazz musicians: music valued by the family, listening to recorded and live music, formal training with instrumental and school band teachers often extending to university training too, collaboration with like-minded peers, and encouragement/mentoring from more experienced players.

However, despite all Silver’s lessons and schooling his 2014 obituary in The Guardian dismissed him as “largely self taught”. The public mythology of musicians often does not match the reality of their training and education.


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