Pianist and composer Horace Silver, who passed away on Wednesday at home in New Rochelle, N.Y., spent more than a year living in Hartford as he worked to get his music career off the ground.
“My hometown had very little jazz activity,” Mr. Silver, a Norwalk, Conn. native, wrote in his autobiography, “Let’s Get to the Nitty Gritty: The Autobiography of Horace Silver.” “I had to commute to Bridgeport, New Haven or Hartford from time to time in order to stay involved with the music.”
Sometime around 1946, friend and drummer Walter Bolden called Silver to tell him about an opening for a house pianist at the Sundown Club (or Club Sundown), a popular spot in Hartford’s North End that was modeled after Harlem jazz clubs.
“The Sundown Club brought to my mind the clubs of Beale Street of Memphis and clubs of New Orleans,” Hartford Courant columnist M. Oakley Stafford wrote in 1948. “Let’s hope the fun-loving young Negroes for whom [owners] Willie and Aaron [Cox] started the club appreciate it and build it up instead of tearing it down.”
The gig paid $50 a week. Upon learning of the position, Silver promptly quit his factory job (angering his father in the process) and moved into a Hartford apartment with Bolden, Bolden’s mother and another older woman. He stayed over a year.
Silver enjoyed his time in Hartford. “There was a piano in the living room, and Mrs. Bolden allowed me to practice on it,” he wrote. Silver spent late nights after gigs listening to Symphony Sid, a popular radio DJ often credited with introducing bebop to a wider audience, and eating pizza with Bolden, while the two ladies slept in another room. “Sid played all the hip records of the day. We listened and were inspired by the music and shared our dreams of getting out of Connecticut and going to New York to make it in the big-time music scene.”
Forming a trio with Bolden and bassist Joe Calloway, Silver gigged around Hartford and Springfield. At the Sundown Club, Silver met singer and vocalese pioneer King Pleasure (“He sold drugs and had a lady trickin’ for him,” Silver wrote). One night, a drug dealer told the pianist that alto saxophone great Charlie Parker was sitting in a car in the parking lot. Silver went out and introduced himself.
“[Parker] had a stack of Art Tatum records on his lap,” Silver wrote. “We talked for awhile, and then I had to go back in the club to play another set. He never came into the club. I presume he just drove up from New York to Hartford with this drug dealer to cop some drugs. It was a thrill to meet him.”
A month later, Silver’s trio backed tenor great Stan Getz at the Sundown Club. “[Getz] said he’d like to use us sometime,” Silver wrote. “We thought that he was only being polite.” Sure enough, two weeks later, Silver got a call to join Getz in Philadelphia. The trio took the job, even though it meant taking less money than they were used to.
“We were elated,” Silver wrote. “The regular salary for sidemen in those days was one hundred and twenty five dollars per week. Getz was offering us seventy five dollars a week. We didn’t care. We just wanted to get out of Hartford and get into the heavyweight music scene. We would have paid him for the opportunity to play with him and further our careers if we could have afforded it. This was our introduction to the big time.” The trio’s work with Getz can be heard on “Stan Getz: The Complete Roost Recordings,” a 3-CD box set.