Born: Washington, DC, May 1, 1934
Died: Washington, DC, October 20, 2005
A smoky, unique voice and precise, careful piano artistry best describe
Shirley Horn. Jazz pianist Marian McPartland put it best when she told
DownBeat magazine, "I've never known anyone that could do a ballad that slowly
and keep it musical, keep it happening."
CLASSICAL PRODIGY GOES JAZZY
Jazz lore has it that Horn was merely four years old when she began playing
the piano. At five, she began formal music training. Her
all-consuming obsession with the piano caused her mother to resort to bribing
her in order to get her to go outside the house and play with other children.
By age twelve she was studying composition at Howard University. A
scholarship to New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music was offered to
her at age 18. Financial constraints, sadly, kept her away from Julliard
— she continued at Howard, however, until she left school to work full-time in
Washington, DC. It was about this time that Horn, classically trained, was
bitten by the jazz bug. Years later she would say, "Oscar Peterson became
my Rachmaninoff, and Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy."
Her first album, "Embers and Ashes" (Stere-o-Craft, 1960) became immensely
popular with jazz aficionados despite its limited distribution.
MILES, HER MENTOR
Jazz Master Miles Davis, normally disdainful of vocalists, was so taken
with Horn he brought her to New York to appear with him in concert. This
began a lifetime collaboration and mutual respect for one another. Horn
referred to Davis as her mentor on several occasions. Her association with
Davis opened doors to performance opportunities and recording contracts.
Horn, after Davis' death, admitted that she remained mystified as to how he got
ahold of "Embers and Ashes" in the first place.
Her early recordings were on the Mercury and ABC-Paramount labels.
These recordings left her cold — she wanted to be a piano player, yet the
labels attempted to prod her into the role of "stand-up singer," devoid of her
beloved piano and doomed to sit in a booth reading the music off of charts.
The commercial exposure had its benefits, however. During the 1960s she
was working major jazz clubs nationwide, and collaborating (at Mercury) with
Quincy Jones. That collaboration culminated with her being tapped to
sing music for the movies "A Dandy In Aspic" and "For Love Of Ivy," with scores
written and directed by Jones.
Frustrated with the record labels' failure to appreciate her as a piano
player, she returned to Washington and disappeared off of the national musical
"radar screen." From the late '60s until 1975, she stayed at home and
raised her daughter, Rainy. During this period, she restricted her
performances to Washington-area venues.
OF THE GREATEST COMEBACKS IN JAZZ HISTORY
In 1980, while attending a musicians' convention in Washington's Shoreham
Hotel, she sat down at the piano one night with some old friends. The
performance apparently dazzled many in the crowd, including recording executives
and concert promoters.
She then accepted an invitation to the North Sea Jazz Festival in the
Netherlands, and her concert led to a career resurgence. She received a contract
with the prestigious Verve record label and was championed by leading jazz
At Verve, she realized a long-time ambition. She would work with a
string orchestra, directed by noted arranger Johnny Mandel, on her seminal
album, "Here's to Life" (Verve, 1992). She continued recording with Verve
until the end of her life. Her final recording, "But Beautiful: The
Best of Shirley Horn" (Verve 2005) was released posthumously.
Trouble began when complications of diabetes necessitated the amputation of
her left foot in 2001. Always determined, Horn finally got used to the
prosthesis she was forced to wear and would shift her hip so as to push the
pedals. Just when her fans thought they'd never hear the signature
combination of piano and voice again, she delighted the crowd at a Kennedy
Center concert when she got out of her wheelchair and sat on the piano bench to
accompany herself on what had become her signature song, "Here's to Life."
ANECDOTES FROM AN ACQUAINTANCE
This writer had the privilege of seeing her at one of her last performances,
at the now-defunct Le Jazz Au Bar in New York City. It became obvious that
Horn refused to abide her already-weakened body's restrictions; she was smoking
her usual non-filtered Pall Mall cigarettes, and imbibing generously of her
favorite combination, straight Grand Marnier with a Heineken chaser. It
was during that engagement that Verve recorded a few cuts from her final album,
"But Beautiful: The Best of Shirley Horn" released posthumously in 2005.