[Dixielandjazz] RIP - Shirley Horne

Stan Brager sbrager at socal.rr.com
Fri Oct 21 19:00:43 PDT 2005

She left a great legacy of music and she'll be remembered but missed.

Stan Brager
----- Original Message ----- 

 Jazz Singer Shirley Horn Dies at 71

 By Adam Bernstein

  Shirley Horn, a smoky-voiced jazz balladeer and pianist who was resigned
to being a musical fixture in her native Washington before emerging as a
national presence in her fifties and winning a Grammy Award, died Thursday
from complications of diabetes at a Gladys Spellman Specialty Hospital and
Nursing Center in Cheverly. She was 71.

 With her slow, meditative ballads, Horn was one of the leading jazz singers
of her generation and was unquestionably Washington's pre-eminent jazz
musician. After reviving her dormant career in the 1980s, she made a series
of triumphant concert appearances and top-selling recordings that earned
seven Grammy nominations. Her performances at the White House in 1994 and at
New York's Lincoln Center in 1998 were broadcast nationally on PBS.

 An uncompromising perfectionist, she worked hard to develop a personal,
pensive sound. Her artistry had long depended on the interaction between
voice and piano, but in 2001 Horn's right foot was amputated because of her
diabetes. As a result, it was difficult for her to use the elegant pedal
work that had marked her piano style.

 Later, she would sometimes remove the shoe from her prosthetic foot and
manipulated the piano's sustain peddle with the force of her hip. In final
appearance, last December at the Kennedy Center, she climbed from her
wheelchair to the piano and performed what had become her signature song,
"Here's to Life." Horn was a piano virtuoso as a child, focusing initially
on classical training until she discovered the music of Erroll Garner and
other jazz pianists. Her first jazz record, in 1960, was on a minor label,
and she remained forever mystified how trumpeter Miles Davis found a copy.
He appreciated the lingering silences of her music, similar to his own style
at the time.

 In later years, Horn won legions of listeners with her exaggeratedly slow,
intimate ballads in which her words seemed to melt in the air.

 "I've never known anyone that could do a ballad that slowly and keep it
musical, keep it happening," pianist Marian McPartland told Down Beat
magazine. Horn was a strong influence on many younger singers, including
jazz pianist-vocalist Diana Krall.

 Davis's early advocacy of Horn's work led to a wider introduction to the
New York jazz world and enabled her to meet producer Quincy Jones. When her
albums for Jones misfired -- she was frustrated to be cast as a stand-up
singer-- she found herself without a contract and back in Washington as jazz
was fast losing ground to rock and other pop sounds.

 She performed when possible but settled primarily into a life as a wife and
mother, demurring from some festival dates that might have given her greater

 In 1980, she was attending a musicians' convention in Washington's Shoreham
Hotel and somewhere after midnight sat down at the piano 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 mesmerizing concert led to a career resurgence. She
received a contract with the prestigious Verve record label and was
championed by leading critics.

 Her reborn career culminated in her Grammy win for best jazz vocal
performance in 1998 for "I Remember Miles," a tribute to her former mentor.
The album cover featured an illustration Davis had made of them years

 Shirley Valerie Horn was born in Washington on May 1, 1934, to a General
Accounting Office clerk and a homemaker. She began her career as a pianist
at age 4, encouraged by a mother who had hopes she would be a pioneering
black classical artist.

 She learned on her grandmother's parlor upright and began to study at
Howard University when she was 12. She won a scholarship to the Juilliard
School of Music in New York, but financial considerations kept her in
Washington, where she continued her training at Howard before focusing on

 "Oscar Peterson became my Richmaninoff, and Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy,"
she later said.

 As a teenage musician, she attracted a small following around Washington
while playing in cocktail lounges. One night, an older customer promised her
a four-foot-tall turquoise teddy bear if she would sing "My Melancholy

 "I was very shy and it was hard for me to sing," Horn said in her Verve
records biography, "but I wanted that teddy bear."

 She incorporated singing into her act to earn extra money and by the
mid-1950s was fronting a small band at Olivia's Patio Lounge, Bohemian
Caverns and other clubs on Washington's U Street jazz corridor.

 She rarely ventured beyond Baltimore at the behest of her husband, Sheppard
Deering, a Metro mechanic.

 He survives her, along with a daughter, Rainy Smith of Lanham; two
brothers, Ernie Horn and Dale Horn, both of Washington; and two grandsons.

 With the release of her first album, "Embers and Ashes," she received the
call from Davis asking her to open for him at the Village Vanguard club in
New York.

 She thought a friend was playing a prank and was still disbelieving when
she arrived in Manhattan. "When I got there, to sort of prove that he really
knew about me, he had his kids singing songs from 'Embers and Ashes,' " she
once told the New York Times.

 Davis used his legendary obstinacy for Horn's advantage, threatening the
Vanguard's owner that he would not play his long engagement if the unknown
singer did not get star treatment in publicity and other matters.

 His generosity was matched by his eccentricity, she later told The
Washington Post: "One night I was playing 'My Funny Valentine' with my
group, and Miles started playing from behind a pillar. But he wouldn't come

 The engagement heralded a hopeful phase in her career. At the Vanguard, she
met actor Sidney Poitier, who "came up to me and said how much he enjoyed my
music and kissed my hand. I almost fainted." She sang on the soundtrack of
his film "For Love of Ivy" (1968).

 The Vanguard exposure led to a contract with Mercury Records, where she
worked with Quincy Jones on two albums, "Shirley Horn With Horns" and "Loads
of Love" (both 1963). Despite working with top-flight musicians, Horn was

 "They wanted to groom me as a stand-up singer," she once told the Baltimore
Sun. "And I thought, 'This ain't right. I play piano.' I felt so
uncomfortable, standing in this little booth singing off the lyric sheets
there in front of me. . . . Those records were not me."

 She returned to Washington and resumed a family life with occasional, if
frustrating, bids for wider recognition during the rise of rock and disco
music and at a time when jazz clubs were closing.

 While her career was reviving in the 1980s, she began to go beyond
Washington for appearances with her longtime musical partners, bassist
Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams. After signing a deal with Verve
Records, her live recording at Hollywood's Vine St. Bar and Grill, "I
Thought About You" (1987), became her first major-label release in 20 years.

 "Shirley Horn need no longer be called a cult artist or a legend," critic
Leonard Feather wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "Without question she is the
singer of the year, and arguably the pianist too."

 She performed before sold-out crowds in the world's leading concert halls
and attracted an star-studded roster of musical guest artists. On her album
"You Won't Forget Me" (1990), she was joined by Davis, who played in his
classic 1950s style on one of his last recordings before his death in 1991.
Other performers included harmonica player Toots Thielemans and trumpeter
Wynton Marsalis.

 In 1992, she fulfilled a long-held desire to be backed by strings and
worked with composer-arranger Johnny Mandel on the album "Here's to Life,"
which spent 16 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard jazz chart. Two of her other
albums, "I Love You, Paris" (1992) "Light Out of Darkness (A Tribute to Ray
Charles)" (1993), also reached No. 1.

 In 1995, she recorded an album, "The Main Ingredient," in her Northeast
Washington home. The record, released the following year, included a recipe
for the beef stew Horn she cooked for saxophonist Joe Henderson, drummer
Elvin Jones and other musicians who performed on the record and lingered at
her house through the night.

 She was inducted into the Washington Area Music Awards hall of fame in 1987
and recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts for lifelong
contributions to jazz in 2004.

 She was a habitual smoker of Pall Malls and a devotee of the soap opera
"The Young and the Restless," sometimes insisting on changing hotel rooms
when TV reception was poor. She valued her family's privacy and, for years,
hung a hand-printed card on her front door: "If you have not contacted me,
don't ring the bell: The Management."

 Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report .

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

More information about the Dixielandjazz mailing list