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Rick Suchow: Bass

the conrad silvert story...

Of all the career paths one can choose to take in life, what could be more contradictory than being a jazz writer? I refer of course not to the musician who pens original tunes to perform, but rather the writer who interprets and translates the jazz art form-- wordless, improvisational combinations of musical notes meant to be heard-- into a scripted art form of worded, carefully crafted sentences meant to be read. And yet, what could be a more unique occupation?

One of the very best at this line of work was Conrad Silvert. His ability to convey the very emotion and artistry of jazz and jazz musicians was matched by few, for he was at heart not only an an avid lover of the music but a true friend of the jazz musician as well. Silvert understood the mechanics of playing jazz, and jazz musicians in return found they liked, trusted and ultimately opened up to him in interviews and social encounters. "Jazz musicians loved Conrad Silvert as a human being, jazz writer, and huge supporter of the music," said pianist Denny Zeitlin.

From his beginnings in the mid-sixties, Conrad's words could be found in his many concert reviews and interviews printed in various music publications and newspapers, and more permanently in numerous album liner notes-- another respected art form that has seemingly diminished in nearly direct proportion to the size of the album cover (the 12" LP jacket, replaced by the 4 3/4" CD insert, ultimately replaced by the no-inch digital download). But back in the day, liner notes were almost as much a part of the experience of enjoying a new jazz recording as the music itself, at least when the job was in the hands of someone as passionate and eloquent as Conrad Silvert.

As fate would have it, Silvert was diagnosed with testicular cancer in his early thirties. Having already made his mark as a respected jazz writer, Conrad wanted only to fulfill one wish before he died: to organize a jazz concert of his own design. As a result, on the night of February 22, 1982, he presented a unique and ultimately legendary concert at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House featuring some of the top jazz musicians of the day.

pictured L to R: Lew Tabackin, Charlie Haden, Jaco Pastorius, Tony Williams, Wynton Marsalis, Conrad Silvert, Denny Zeitlin, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Pat Metheny, Carlos Santana, Bobby Hutcherson, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock.

"We were all very touched to be part of what everyone knew would be Conrad’s musical epitaph," according to Zeitlin. "The spirit and collaboration that night was very special, and the concert lasted well over three hours."

It was also recorded and later released as a double album on CBS Records titled Conrad Silvert Presents Jazz At The Opera House (the recording has long been out of print and is now a valued collectors item, currently fetching well over a hundred dollars in recent online auctions). Perhaps as notable as the musicians credited on the album were the ones who were omitted, including Jaco Pastorius, Sonny Rollins, Pat Metheny and Carlos Santana. "Because of contractual restrictions, many musicians do not appear on this double LP release," continues Zeitlin. "Conrad had the idea of creating new combinations of musicians, which heightened the sense of adventure."

Jaco's cameo appearance on the album is brief and rather musically insignificant. He walked on stage with his bass and joined Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Charlie Haden, Tony Williams and Bobby Hutcherson during a nearly seventeen-minute rendition of Shorter's "Footprints", played a brief one-minute solo, and then added some low end support with Haden as the band finished out the tune. Jaco was off his game that night, but clearly a testament to the star power that Silvert was able to bring to this concert.

Jaco At The Opera House - L to R: Charlie Haden, Wynton Marsalis, Jaco

In the program notes that Silvert prepared for the Opera House performance he wrote, "tonight's program, which will run for three and one half hours or so, will be quite different from a typical concert or festival. There will be no regularly performing bands; that is, all the musicians have come to San Francisco as individuals. Each musician is a featured headliner; no single musician is the star.

"What we have tonight is a repertory company assembled for one evening only. There will be solos, duets, trios, quartets and so on. Many of the musicians will be playing together for the first time, while clearly many of them have played together in the past.

"Being that this is a jazz concert, I feel it would be inappropriate to list all the personnel configurations in order of performance. Jazz is by its very nature improvisational, so why not enhance the spontaneous aspect by not informing the audience as to the next musician(s) ready to stride in from the wings.

"One small secret I can divulge is that the musicians have expressed that they feel challenged by the unconventional format, and that they are just as intrigued at the prospect of tonight's proceedings as those who will be listening to their music."

Conrad Silvert died just a few short weeks after this unique, memorable and moving concert. He was only 34 years old. In Conrad's own words, the concert at the Opera House was "the fulfillment of a dream".

-Rick Suchow, June 2007

(special thanks to Denny Zeitlin. Denny's website is

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