Silva was born a British subject to an Azorean/Portuguese mother, Irene da Silva, and a black Bermudian father known only as “Ruby”. At the very height of racial segregation in the United States, Silva emigrated to the United States at the age of five with his mother, eventually acquiring U.S. citizenship by the age of 18 or 19. He adopted the stage name of Alan Silva in his twenties.
Silva was quoted in a Bermudan newspaper in 1988 as saying that although he left the island at a young age, he always considered himself Bermudian. He was raised in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, where he first began studying the trumpet, and moved on to study theupright bass.
Silva is known as one of the most inventive bass players in jazz and has performed with many of the great names in the world of avant-garde jazz, including Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, Sunny Murray, and Archie Shepp.
Silva performed in 1964’s October Revolution as a pioneer in the free jazz movement, and for Ayler’s Live in Greenwich Village album. He has lived mainly in Paris since the early 1970s, where he formed the Celestrial Communication Orchestra, a group dedicated to the performance of free jazz with various instrumental combinations. In the 1990s he picked up the electronic keyboard, declaring that his bass playing no longer surprised him. He has also used the electric violin and electric sarangi on his recordings.
Since around 2000 he has performed more frequently as a bassist and bandleader, notably at New York City’s annual Vision Festivals.