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Famed Jazz Artist Shirley Horn Leaves Behind a Loyal Following

  • Mary Morningstar
  • Doug Levine

Famed jazz vocalist and pianist Shirley Horn died October 20 in Washington, D.C. of complications from diabetes. She was 71. During her teens, Horn turned her back on classical music to pursue a career in jazz. She formed the first of her trademark trios in 1954, and over the next five decades was one of jazz's most admired performers.

Shirley Horn has been described as "a performer who could transform herself from a heartbroken innocent to a sultry viper to a worn-out reveler."

Born in Washington, D.C., Horn began playing the piano at age four. By the time she was 12, she was enrolled at Howard University's Junior School of Music to study classical composition. During her late-teens, she regularly performed classical music at a local restaurant. The owner of the establishment urged Horn to continue singing jazz after she gave in to a patron's request for "Melancholy Baby." Horn once said she was inspired by her parents' love for jazz.

"I was about 11 or 12 years old, and Errol Garner came out," she said. "If you remember, he had 'Penthouse Serenade' and there are a lot of wonderful songs that he composed. Of course, everyone knows about 'Misty.' I just was listening to music that I heard at home. I heard the good singers and I was surrounded by good music."

Shirley Horn assembled her first trio in 1954, and five years later recorded her debut album, Embers And Ashes. Legendary trumpeter Miles Davis heard the collection, and invited her to appear with him at New York's famed Village Vanguard. The performance earned Shirley Horn her first major label recording contract with Mercury Records.

Influenced by jazz divas Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday, Horn was devoted to the purity of jazz. Saxophonist Branford Marsalis said that his approach to ballads was forever changed after hearing her perform. Shirley Horn was often referred to as "the slowest singer in the world," a technique she mastered intentionally.

"The way I approach a ballad, number one, I'm trying to tell a story," she said. "I'm trying to paint a picture, and I'm laid back. Give the music and the lyric a chance to sink in."

Shirley Horn gained a loyal following in the United States and Europe, but did so on her own terms. She was criticized by many of her peers for staying at home for nearly two decades to raise her daughter, a decision Horn never regretted.

"I've seen so many cases where, the women in particular, left children and husband, everything to be a success, and most of those people aren't too happy right now," she said. "I didn't feel like moving to New York. [People would say] 'You've got to go to California. Go to New York.' I wanted to stay in my house, and wanted to watch my daughter grow and be there for her. And, you know, she needed me as much as I needed her."

Shirley Horn's string of hit albums in the 1990s led to many busy years of touring. Her 1992 collection, Here's To Life, was dedicated to Miles Davis, who had agreed to perform on two selections. Sadly, Miles died before the recording sessions took place.

One special highlight in Horn's long career came in 1991, when she made her debut in Paris. She was invited back in 1992, and following that sold-out concert Horn remarked, "I've never seen so many young people come out to hear my music. I was very moved by their support." That same year, she performed for the first time at New York's Carnegie Hall.

In 1998, Horn won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal performance for her album I Remember Miles. Last year, she was honored with a tribute by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Soon after she was awarded a Jazz Master Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts.

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