She Sang Softly but Carried a Big Swing

She Sang Softly but Carried a Big Swing

by Larry Blumenfeld

copyright © 2005 The Wall Street Journal
Reprinted with permission

Jazz's softest, slowest voice has fallen silent. And that's reason for pause. When pianist and singer Shirley Horn died on Friday of complications from diabetes at 71, American song lost one of its most original interpreters — equally adept with her voice and her instrument, fiercely personal in her grasp of a lyric.

Horn extended a tradition of singer-pianists that runs from Fats Waller and Nat (King) Cole through Diana Krall. She furthered a lineage of iconic female jazz singers that includes Billie Holiday and Abbey Lincoln. But Horn was singular, inimitable. She wrung previously unheard irony and drama from well-worn lyrics when she sang, emphasizing certain phrases and dropping others altogether. She made use of thoughtfully original chord voicings on piano to underscore her vocals. She had an unerring sense of swing.

And she always took her time. "Space is a valuable commodity in music," Horn told me in 2000 during an interview for Jazziz magazine. "Too many musicians rush through everything, playing too many notes. It's important to understand what the song is saying, and learn how to tell the story. It takes time. I can't rush it."

Horn never rushed a thing — not a single phrase, not even her career. Yet she emerged as one of America's premiere musical storytellers, and a celebrated jazz stylist: she won a Grammy Award in 1998 for Best Jazz Vocal Performance and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master last year.

The humility and quiet power of Horn's music mirrors her story. She never moved away from the Washington area, where she was born and raised (and where she brought up her daughter, Rainy). She started playing piano at four, in the parlor of her grandmother's home. Though she won a scholarship to Juilliard, she decided that living in New York would be a financial strain on her family, so she studied composition at nearby Howard University instead. As a teenager, Horn did not think of herself as a singer; she enjoyed jazz but favored classical music. She liked to tell the story of how, at 17, while playing Rachmaninoff at a restaurant, she was coaxed into singing and performing jazz: A gentleman offered an oversized teddy bear as a reward if she'd play "Melancholy Baby." She threw herself into the tune, and into jazz. She never looked back.

Horn formed her first trio in 1954. She played and sang on a 1959 session by the violinist Stuff Smith, and began recording as a leader the following year. Even her earliest albums, such as Embers and Ashes, for the obscure Stereo-craft label, display Horn's devastating mastery of soft-but-strong statement and of space as a musical element. Those are the traits that appealed to Miles Davis, who sought her out and then famously told the owners of the Village Vanguard that he would play there only if Horn appeared on the same bill. She did. Quincy Jones became an admirer and mentor of Horn's during this period, producing two 1963 albums of hers for Mercury: Loads of Love and Shirley Horn With Horns.

Gentle as Horn's voice was, her will was strong. When she was told by Mercury executives not to play piano, and despite the support of accompanists such as Hank Jones, she left the label. And during the 1970s and early '80s, she performed only near her Washington home in order to spend most of her time tending to her family.

Broader fame came slowly, which suited Horn just fine. She made some recordings with drummer and fellow D.C. native Billy Hart for the Danish Steeplechase label between 1978 and 1984. In 1986, she began a powerful affiliation with the Verve label: Her career blossomed quickly and stunningly; in turn, she helped revitalize the once-dormant imprint.

"Shirley was the first artist signed when we revived the Verve label," said Richard Seidel, who produced Horn's most successful albums. "At the time, we thought of her as an overlooked giant. People always commented on Shirley's mastery of slow tempos. What she's not often given credit for is that she could swing hard too."

Horn's Verve recordings found her in a variety of complementary settings: 1990's You Won't Forget Me featured a rare cameo by Davis; on 2001's You're My Thrill, her vocals were bathed in Johnny Mandel's string arrangements; she was joined here and there by established masters, such as saxophonist Joe Henderson, and younger standard-bearers, such as trumpeters Roy Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis. Horn continued to do things her way: In 1996, she used her livingroom as the studio for a star-studded but relaxed recording, The Main Ingredient. Throughout, she maintained long-standing bonds with electric bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams. And she always played piano — that is until 2002, when her right foot was amputated due to complications from diabetes. From that point on, George Mesterhazy took over the piano chair for her live performances; for the 2003 recording, May the Music Never End, Ahmad Jamal, who inspired Horn's own style, took over for Mesterhazy on two tracks.

Musicians, like audience members, prized Horn's ability to draw them close. "Shirley taught me how to have fun making music, and what it really means to deliver a song," said Hargrove. "And she was so warm: Whenever you entered her circle, it was just like going home."

Hargrove plays on two of three songs recorded at Horn's last New York engagement, at Le Jazz Au Bar in January, for which she was back at the piano with the aid of a prosthesis. These tracks close the recently released But Beautiful: The Best of Shirley Horn on Verve (the first 11 tracks span the years 1963-96). And it's those final tunes to which I keep returning: When Horn draws out the lyrics of "Jelly Jelly" or staggers the phrasing of "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," her performance seems like a winking coda — joyous, ironic and unhurried as ever. The last thing we hear is her, gently giggling.

Just one slightly raspy whisper from Horn drowns out most of the strained vocalists vying for our attention, and always will. She made us stop and listen.

  • Loads of Love/Shirley Horn With Horns (Mercury, 1963; two LPs reissued on CD by Verve)
  • Trav'lin Light (ABC/Paramount, 1965, reissued by Impulse/GRP)
  • A Lazy Afternoon (Steeplechase, 1978)
  • You Won't Forget Me (Verve, 1991)
  • Here's to Life (Verve, 1992)
  • The Main Ingredient (Verve, 1996)
  • I Remember Miles (Verve, 1998)
  • But Beautiful: The Best of Shirley Horn on Verve (Verve, 2005)

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