Shirley Horn - Biography

By Nick Castro


Shirley Horn, was born in 1934 in Washington D.C., and was a jazz composer, pianist and singer. She was considered a child prodigy and was studying music formally by the age of five. Horn's mother has said that she would have to bribe the young Horn to go out and socialize with children her own age, for if Horn could have it her own way she would have spent every waking moment playing piano. By the age of 12, Horn was studying music and composition at Howard University. When she was 18 she was offered a scholarship at Julliard, but the overwhelming living expenses of New York were far too much of a strain for the Horn family to bear so they had to turn it down. Rather than go to New York, Horn began studying at Howard University in Washington D.C.. At this time Horn thought she was going into a career of classical music, but soon she was sneaking into local jazz clubs in the U Street area of Washington D.C. prior to its subsequent decline after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.. When Horn was young, clubs like the Bohemian Caverns and the Lincoln Theatre still reigned supreme for acts like Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.


In 1959 Horn got work with violinist Stuff Smith and it was with him that she got her first opportunity to record in a studio. She played piano on his album Cat on a Hot Fiddle (1959 - Verve) along with musicians Red Mitchell on bass and Harry Saunders on drums. Material on the album included many songs by George Gershwin like "The Man I Love", "Oh, Lady Be Good", "Nice Work if You Can Get It" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me".


It was the next year though, aided by some positive public comments by Miles Davis, Horn's career began to take off. She had just recorded the album Embers and Ashes - Songs of Lost Love Sung by Shirley Horn (1960 - Stereo-Craft), with musicians Joe Benjamin and Lewis Powers on bass, and drummers Harry Saunders and Herbie Lovelle. Horn shines on this album and Davis was undoubtedly impressed by moments such as her instrumental version of "Softly As in a Morning Sunrise", which incorporates many elements of her classical training. Davis brought her to New York to join him on a series of concerts dates at the Village Vanguard. This led to jobs in other notable venues as well as to recording contracts with labels like Mercury. At this time she also released the album Live at the Village Vanguard (1961 - Can-Am), which, although recorded somewhat poorly, is a testament and proof of Horn's already full formed and developed sound, even at this early age. She soon met trumpet player and producer Quincy Jones who tried to reinvent her as a pop singer but the results were not as successful as her previous efforts. She released the albums Loads of Love (1963 - Mercury) and Shirley Horn with Horns (1963 - Mercury), the latter album produced by Jones and features him as well as horn player Thad Jones. Arrangement duties were handled by Jones as well as by Don Sebesky, who later make a name for himself as a house arranger for Creed Taylor's CTI label. On this album Horn interpreted tunes like "That Old Black Magic", "Mack the Knife", "Come dance With Me" and "I'm in the Mood for Love". Unfortunately Horn was pushed towards a pop style in hopes of selling records and encouraging the audience to catch on to her talent but it seemed to have the opposite effect, though she was almost unanimously loved by music critics.


In 1965 Horn recorded the album Travelin' Light (1965 - Impulse!), which featured musicians Kenny Burrell on guitar, Jerome Richardson on flute, Frank Wess on saxophone, Bernard Sweetney on drums and Marshall Hawkins on bass. This album featured the songs "Some of My Best Friends are the Blues", "Confession", "I Want to be With You" and "You're Blasé". Around this time the musical landscapes were changing and Horn became dismayed by the decline of jazz's popularity and she refused to pursue a career in pop. She recorded on the soundtracks for the films For Love of Ivy and A Dandy in Aspic.


Horn began to have disputes with Mercury and she decided to retire from music for the time being and dedicate herself to raising her daughter. She took office jobs in Washington D.C. and would only perform occasionally and locally. Her next recording would not be until the release of her album Where Are You Going (1973 - Perception), which featured the Horn composition "Consequences of a Drug Addict Role". That same year she recorded a live set on NPR. She began to requests for her music and she finally succumbed to the call when she released the album A Lazy Afternoon (1978 - SteepleChase). On this album she did songs like "I'm Old Fashioned", "New York's My Home" and "Take a Little Time to Smile", by Peggy Lee. The highlight of the album, though, may be her version of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Gentle Rain". She began touring frequently again and was receiving prestigious gigs like the Monterey Jazz Festival. Her next release was At Northsea (1981 - SteepleChase), which was a compilation of her performances at the Northsea Jazz Festival.


Horn continued to record and perform, selectively, throughout the 80's and 90's and she would have greater success in these later years than in the her  youth. She won Grammy Award nominations and received many accolades for her work, especially her work with the Verve label, such as Close Enough for Love (1988 - Verve), You Won't Forget Me (1990 - Verve) and I Remember Miles (1998 - Verve). Horn would continue in the new millennium for the Verve label but her life was ended in 2005 when died from a stroke. She had been suffering from severe diabetes, breast cancer and an amputated foot, which made it difficult for her to continue to play the piano. Before her death she received a Jazz Masters Award from the National Endowment for the Arts.





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