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."


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.


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.


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 critics.

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."


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.


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