On the occasion of the announcement of the 2015 class of NEA Jazz Masters—the nation’s highest honor for jazz artists—let’s take note of three recently departed NEA jazz masters: trumpeter Joe Wilder, singer Jimmy Scott and pianist-composer Horace Silver.
Each of these soft-spoken, graceful men was a musical stylist of originality.
Wilder carved a path for musicians such as Wynton Marsalis by way of his training in European classical music and the development of his own lyrical jazz voice. Scott’s singular vocal style transformed pain into plaintive poignancy, eliciting tears in fans from Quincy Jones to Madonna. Silver, a highly influential bandleader, pianist, arranger and composer, integrated the blues, jazz, gospel, R&B and Latin sounds of his predecessors and contemporaries into a fine art of his own creation.
Joe Wilder: Feb. 22, 1922-May 9, 2014
Joe Wilder was a cheerful man of abiding dignity whose core of strength was grounded in his cultural values. He avoided the bad habits that ruined the lives and careers of many of his jazz peers. Wilder was such a gentleman, in fact, that he declined offers of money from his bandmates to use profane language.
Raised in Philly in a musical family, Wilder initially aspired to a concert career as a classical trumpeter. Such an objective for a black man in the 1930s, however, wasn’t feasible. He soon began playing in notable big bands (Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford) as lead trumpeter.
Wilder was among the first thousand blacks to join the Marines during World War II, after which he continued his big band work with Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie. (Check out his 30-second solo from the famous “Sound of Jazz” session with Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins and other legends in 1957.) Adept at reading music and performing any style of music put before him, Wilder integrated Broadway-show pit orchestras and served as an ABC studio session player from 1957 to 1974.
Wilder recorded a handful of albums as a leader, including one of European classical compositions. This clip demonstrates his lyrical approach on Duke Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” and serves as a video tribute. Deemed an NEA Jazz Master in 2008, Wilder loved sharing his experiences and insights with young people. A devoted family man and father of four, he will be remembered as a consummate gentleman of jazz.
Jimmy Scott: July 17, 1925-June 12, 2014
Jimmy Scott channeled blues suffering into a bittersweet thread of melancholy. An influence on Marvin Gaye and Frankie Valli and a profound model for Nancy Wilson, his male-contralto register resulted from a childhood illness called Kallmann syndrome. The rare genetic condition halted puberty, arresting Scott’s physical growth as well as the deepening of his voice. He was teased by peers who became the gender police and was called all sorts of names for sounding effeminate, yet after decades of obscurity caused by exploitation in the music industry, he grew to see his “affliction as a gift.”
On songs such as “Time After Time” and “Nothing Compares 2U,” the latter by Prince, Scott translated the lyrics into a story through delicate phrasing, emphasizing and elongating certain passages, squeezing forth shades of meaning and emotional nuance. His first hit, “Everybody’s Somebody’s Fool,” came in 1950 with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, but his name wasn’t attached to the record. Ray Charles recorded Scott’s 1962 masterpiece, “Falling in Love Is Wonderful,” but Savoy Records owner Herman Lubinsky nixed the release because Scott was under an infamous “lifetime contract.”
Lubinsky repeated his perfidy again in 1970, stopping another release that might have given Scott the recognition he deserved. Scott moved back home to Cleveland, doing odd jobs. With his rediscovery in the late 1980s, his winter-years career rose, with tours, recordings, high-profile appearances (President Bill Clinton’s first inaugural ball; the final episode of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series), a biography by David Ritz, a fifth and final marriage, and selection as an NEA Jazz Master in 2007.
The late Billy Taylor, also an NEA Jazz Master, summed up Scott’s artistry by saying that he “interpreted lyrics like Olivier interpreting Shakespeare.”
Horace Silver: Sept. 2, 1928-June 18, 2014
Rising to prominence in the 1950s, Horace Silver had a style that is usually termed “hard bop,” a less harmonically complex musical style than its predecessor, “bebop,” that re-established the rhythmic primacy of earlier roots music such as blues and gospel. When Silver and others added a touch of R&B to the mix, the classic Blue Note record-label sound was born.
But style labels go only so far to explain the impact of Silver, a native of Norwalk, Conn., who co-founded the Jazz Messengers with Art Blakey in 1953. In 1955 he struck off on his own as a leader of quintets (piano, bass, drums, tenor sax and trumpet), playing his many compositions.
Some song titles described everyday activities, such as “Strollin’” and “Doodlin’”; others were tributes, such as “Nica’s Dream” and “Gregory Is Here,” written for his only son. Silver embraced the funk with “Filthy McNasty,” integrated Latin grooves in tunes such as “Señor Blues,” and black American church flavors with “Sister Sadie” and “The Preacher.” His ballads “Peace” and “Lonely Woman” capture in tender form the feelings and attitudes of the titles.
Parts of his most famous tune, “Song for My Father,” were employed in numbers by Stevie Wonder (“Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing”), Steely Dan (“Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) and Earth, Wind & Fire (“Clover”) in the 1970s.
As with his songs, Silver’s piano playing displayed wide influences but always remained melodic and accessible, with a light touch. He nurtured young artists ranging from drummers Louis Hayes and Billy Cobham to saxophonists Joe Henderson and Michael Brecker and trumpet men Woody Shaw and Tom Harrell. Silver’s melodic gift was used in service of the joy of living.
Rest in peace, Joe Wilder, Jimmy Scott and Horace Silver.