Shirley Horn

Jazz singer and pianist
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The Independent Online

Although she began playing and singing in her own trios when she was 20, Shirley Horn had to wait until she was 50 before she became well known. At that point, in the Eighties, she was reluctantly dragged into the limelight. From then onwards, her work was savoured across the world in a series of albums that won her many awards as one of the best of all the jazz singers. Unusually, she didn't sound like any other singer. Her penchant for ballad singing led her to a rare mastery of slow tempos.

She made her first recording in 1959 in her home town of Washington, DC, with the violinist Stuff Smith and the following year made her first trio recording. This was to be her favourite setting. The trumpeter Miles Davis chanced on a copy of the then obscure album, called Embers and Ashes, and was captivated by Horn's smoky improvisations and use of space, both similar to his own methods. In 1961 he was due to play a season at the Village Vanguard in New York. Although he had never met Horn, he told the club management "If she don't play, I ain't gonna play."

And so Horn got her first major booking. While she was singing "My Funny Valentine" one night, Davis played a trumpet accompaniment from behind a pillar in the club, but wouldn't play onstage with her. They became close friends for the rest of his life and in 1990, a year before Davis's death, he played on her album You Won't Forget Me. In 1998 Horn recalled their friendship with the album I Remember Miles, which won the Grammy Award that year for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.

Undoubtedly, Horn's slow rise from obscurity was mainly due to her insistence on privacy. Her home in Washington had a sign hung on the front door that read "If you have not contacted me, don't ring the bell: The Management."

"Interviews. Photographs. That's the hard part," she said of her career. "But I'd never give it up. I couldn't. I'm driven. Music is my life. Without it, I'd perish."

Already a brilliant pianist by the time she was 11, she enrolled in the junior school of music of Howard University in Washington at 12, staying until she won a scholarship to Juilliard in New York when she was 18. But her family wouldn't let her leave home to move to Manhattan to take it up.

Playing at local jam sessions soon led to her getting steady work in local clubs. Stuff Smith was a family friend, having known her father in their home town of St Louis. He came to hear her often when he was in Washington and eventually made his album Cat on a Hot Fiddle (1959) with Horn on piano.

By 1963 Quincy Jones had taken an interest in her and produced two of her albums for Mercury. She sang, but didn't play. She was backed by the pianist Hank Jones on a session with strings and by another pianist, Bobby Scott, for an album called Horn with Horns (1963).

Horn was unhappy with the albums and didn't like to be what she called "a stand up singer". She wanted to accompany herself on the piano. "At a concert, Carmen McRae might sit down and do one song by herself on piano," she said.

Sarah Vaughan was a bad pianist. Dinah Washington was the baddest. They had no knowledge of piano, you know. But the record companies, they wanted somebody to stand up and sing. I heard somewhere they were pushing Nat Cole to do that.

Stand up! Piano playing is secondary. Piano player's just one of the band. I couldn't handle anyone playing for me, because they don't hear what's up there and you have no way of knowing what's going on up here with me.

She returned to Washington and a period of isolation from New York while she brought up her daughter. She owned a club there, the Place Where Louis Dwells, at which she performed.

Playing at a musicians' convention in Washington in 1980 Horn dazzled the audience and attracted the attention of some of the concert promoters and recording executives who were present. This resulted first in a booking at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, her European début, where she had a sensational reception. Four albums with her regular trio followed and then, in 1987, she signed a contract for Verve for whom she made all her succeeding albums.

From then onwards, she played all over the world and won innumerable awards and polls until her death. In 1992 she worked with the composer-arranger Johnny Mandel to produce the album Here's To Life which went to No 1 on the Billboard jazz chart and stayed there for four months. Two subsequent albums also topped the same chart.

Horn sang on the soundtrack of the film For Love of Ivy (1968), in which her friend Sidney Poitier starred, and also that of A Dandy in Aspic (1968).

Shirley Horn was seriously hooked on television soaps and on occasion would insist on changing hotel rooms if the TV reception wasn't adequate.

Steve Voce

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