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Sublime vocalist and pianistby Todd S. Jenkins
Copyright © 2006 Todd S. Jenkins
Singer and pianist Shirley Horn was among the last of her generation, a classic song stylist with distinctively paced delivery and a gift for interpreting ballads. Ms. Horn died of complications of diabetes on October 21, 2005, at the age of 71.
Horn was indelibly associated with Washington, D.C., the city where she was born, raised her family and died. Her childhood piano studies led her to desire a career in music. At first she was only interested in playing the piano, not singing. But all that changed when she was seventeen and encouraged to sing at a local restaurant. Like Nina Simone and Diana Krall after her, Horn soon found that her appeal as a vocalist overshadowed her respectable piano talents.
Horn graduated from Howard University and formed her first piano trio in 1954. She found two early boosters in Quincy Jones and Miles Davis, who encouraged her and helped her to line up gigs in New York City. In 1960 Horn opened for Davisí band at the Village Vanguard, an auspicious debut. Three years later, at the age of 29, Horn cut her first albums for Mercury Records (Loads of Love and Shirley Horn with Horns), with Jones as producer. In 1965 she recorded Traveliní Light for ABC/Paramount. However, the call of love and family soon sidelined her. Horn retired from performing for several years, opting to stay at home in D.C. and raise her daughter.
It wasnít until 1978 that Horn returned to the studio to record A Lazy Afternoon for Steeplechase. She made a few more albums for the label during the 1980s, including an excellent live performance at the North Sea Jazz Festival. Her fame gradually spread around the globe, and in 1987 Horn signed with Verve, beginning a long association that only terminated with her death. She received the Prix Billie Holiday from the French Academie du Jazz in 1990, the same year that Miles Davis made a rare guest appearance on her album You Wonít Forget Me. In 1996 she was inducted into the Lionel Hampton Jazz Hall of Fame.
Horn recorded a dozen fine albums during her tenure with Verve, including I Thought About You (1987), Close Enough for Love (1988) and Light Out of Darkness (A Tribute to Ray Charles) (1993). She amassed seven consecutive Grammy nominations, and in 1998 she took home the statue for Best Jazz Vocal Performance (I Remember Miles, an homage to her old friend and supporter). As one of D.C.ís favorite daughters, Horn also brought home five Wammys, the local music industry award.
At the turn of the century Hornís health began to fail, and in 2002 her right foot was amputated due to diabetes. Her magnificent 2003 album, May the Music Never End, seemed intended as a swansong to her legions of devoted fans worldwide.
Todd S. Jenkins
Todd S. Jenkins is a member of the JJA, author of Free Jazz and Free Improvisation: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2004) and I Know What I Know: The Music of Charles Mingus (Praeger, 2006), and a contributor to Down Beat, All About Jazz, American Songwriter and Route 66 Magazine.