Today I am going to compare two poignant instrumental tunes, each named after the composer’s wife: Barbara by Horace Silver, and Beatrice by Sam Rivers. Both musicians were born in the 1920s, and lived well into this century. They wrote these pieces in mid-life, during the great flowering of jazz in the 1960s and 70s.
Surely such a tune tells us something about the composer’s relationship with their partner? But what? Instrumental music cannot be as explicit as words. On the other hand, perhaps words are more apt to lie
The tune hints that Silver’s relationship with his wife was stormy at times, but never for long, and blissful in between. It begins in a dark mood, with restless diminished-scale chords, rocking between Bb7#11b9 and Ab7#11b9. At bar 7 there is a sudden transformation to bright, serene major harmony. It’s as though the sun has burst through the clouds.
The tonality moves from Eb to Gb and then, in a sweet modulation reminiscent of All The Things You Are, back to Eb. First time around, the clouds return quickly. Second time around, Silver seems determined to make the happy times last, by pulling back, inserting a sideslip, and finally tacking on a vamp that spins out the C section to a total of 14 bars.
I cannot help thinking of the sea. It’s not just the changing weather of the first 12 bars, but the final vamp in which major 7th chords rise and fall like the waves. It’s as if we are sailing in bright sunshine, on the big, thrilling swell which remains after the storm.
Beatrice is a gentler tune, without dramatic extremes of shadow and light. Nevertheless, it possesses a lithe and elegant narrative arc. Aspiring improvisers are often reminded (in Lester Young’s words) to ‘tell a story’ in their solos. If you cannot tell a story with the material that Sam Rivers provides here, it is certainly not the composer’s fault.
One could try too hard to pin down why this tune is so beautiful. Its fluent movement between major and minor colouring is part of it. It also confirms the lesson I learned in my recent tangle with negative harmony: that the world’s cadences are far more diverse than most harmony books suggest. There is only one standard 2-5-1 in the whole piece (at bar 11).
The harmony moves in three widening loops. The first is tentative, tiptoeing a semitone from Fmaj7 to Gbmaj7 and returning immediately. The second phrase recapitulates the first, in the relative minor, and then takes an interesting route back to the home key (F major) via the IV- chord (Bb-). If you allow A- to fulfil a tonic function in F major, then this is one of Jacob Collier’s ‘warm and epic’ minor plagal cadences. In the fine Chet Baker recording an Eb7 chord follows Bb-, making a variant of the ‘backdoor’ cadence (IV-, bVII, III- instead of the more usual IV-, bVII, I). Whatever, it’s a lovely sound.
The third loop is longer, fully confident and almost triumphal. It heads for the relative minor again, this time more decisively, with the only unmodified 2-5-1 in the piece. From here (VI-) the way home seems clear: continue the cycle of fifths, II, V, I, finito.
But this tune doesn’t want to go home. It has found its happy place and is in no hurry to leave. In the last line we are back on tiptoes, chords shifting by semitones, resolving unexpectedly to the parallel minor (F-) and finally returning to Gbmaj7, the tritone-substituted dominant which leads straight into the next chorus.
Is that the story of a love affair, from cautious approaches, through developing passion, to never wanting to be apart? Possibly, but I am at risk of over-interpreting here.
Like Barbara, Beatrice concludes with a vamp on chords already heard in the tune’s last line. Some people end on F minor, which is wistful enough but not as wistful as what Sam Rivers does, which is to hover on the restless Gbmaj7.
It’s as if neither tune really wants to end. If you are a composer expressing love for your life partner, I guess endings are not really what you want to think about, even if you know they are bound to come.
I felt I had to find out more about the real life Barbara and Beatrice. Horace Silver met Barbara Jean Dove in Philadelphia in 1968. In his autobiography Let’s Get To The Nitty Gritty, he describes meeting an attractive young woman with an Afro, who shares many of his attitudes and interests. They marry in 1970. He is 42. She is 24. “The first two years were great,” Horace writes. “Then it started to go sour, and the next three years were all downhill.”
Did he hope that he and Barbara could outsail the storms together? Perhaps he tried to express that hope in music. But by the time Barbara was recorded, in January 1975, their marriage was already heading for the rocks. They were divorced that year.
Sam Rivers and Beatrice (Bea) had a more lasting and successful relationship, as a couple and as business partners. I do not know when they met or were married, but Sam recorded Beatrice on the 1964 album Fuschia Swing Song.
In the 1970s they ran a ‘jazz loft’ called Studio Rivbea, which was one of New York City’s leading venues for free jazz. It was also their home. They moved to Orlando, Florida in the 1990s. There they met many top-flight musicians who had come to work at the local theme parks. They recruited some of these players to their large ensemble, the Rivbea Orchestra.
Beatrice died in 2005, and Sam in 2011. The website rivbea.com commemorates Sam and Bea. I found one photograph of them together, on the website of the brass multi-instrumentalist Joseph Daley, who played with Sam Rivers many times.
I still know very little about these musicians’ lives. I cannot claim that their real-life relationships, or the personalities of their partners, are accurately revealed in these two tunes. But does that matter? Surely the chief value of music is not what it tells you about the composer’s life, but what it speaks to in your own.
Further reading and listening
Horace Silver, 2 September 1928 – 18 June 2014
- Telegraph.co.uk obituary
- Guardian obituary by Ronald Atkins. Strong sense of Silver’s personality
- Obituary by Matt Schudel in the Washington Post. A good assessment of Silver’s massive contribution to jazz
- A 1977 recording of Barbara, with Silver finding fresh improvisational ideas including a cheeky quote of La Marseillaise
Sam Rivers, 25 September 1923 – 26 December 2011
- What I Learned From Sam Rivers. An appreciation by Patrick Jarenwattananon, written soon after Rivers’ death
- All About Jazz profile of Sam Rivers written before his death. With discography and 33 photographs
- Guardian obituary by the paper’s erudite jazz correspondent John Fordham
- Los Angeles Times obituary
- An informative biography of Sam Rivers by Chris Kelsey at Allmusic.com