2005 – Jazz vocalist and pianist Shirley Horn dies of diabetes complications in Washington, D.C., aged 71. In a career lasting five decades, she worked with Miles Davis, Quincy Jones and Wynton Marsalis.
Shirley Horn collaborated with many jazz greats including Miles Davis (they influenced each other), Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans, Ron Carter, Carmen McRae, Wynton Marsalis and others. She was most noted for her ability to accompany herself with nearly incomparable independence and ability on the piano while singing, something described by arranger Johnny Mandel as “like having two heads”, and for her rich, lush voice, a smoky contralto (that occasionally rose to a glorious, ringing belt), which was described by noted producer and arranger Quincy Jones as “like clothing, as she seduces you with her voice”. Although she could swing as strongly as any straight-ahead jazz artist, Horn’s reputation rode on her exquisite ballad work. She tended to take love songs at a glacial tempo, expertly weaving her soft singing (typically in whispery, short phrases like wisps of cigarette smoke) with her gorgeous Impressionist piano chordings and unique dynamic control (a clear example of her artistry can be found in her cover of Jule Styne’s The Music that Makes Me Dance, found on her albumYou Won’t Forget Me).
Horn has also been cited by noted Canadian jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall as a major inspiration and influence. Horn is thought by some to be one of a quartet of America’s “great jazz divas”, along with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.
Biography and career
Shirley Horn began playing piano at an early age, and had thoughts as a teenager of becoming a classical artist. She was offered a scholarship to Juilliard, but turned it down for financial reasons. She then became enamored with the famous U Street jazz area of Washington (largely destroyed in the 1968 riots), sneaking into jazz clubs before she was of legal age.
Horn first achieved fame in 1960, when Miles Davis “discovered” her. Davis’ praise had particular resonance in two respects, one because he was so highly respected as a musician, and two because he rarely had anything positive to publicly offer about any musician at that time. Shirley had, though, recorded several songs with violinist Stuff Smith in 1959 both as a pianist and a singer. After her discovery by Davis, she recorded albums on different small labels in the early 1960s, eventually landing contracts with larger labels Mercury Records and Impulse Records. She was popular with jazz critics, but did not achieve significant popular success.
Quincy Jones attempted to make Horn into a pure vocalist in several recording sessions, something he later hinted may have been a mistake. Horn was also disturbed by the changes in popular music in the 1960s following the arrival of The Beatles, and stated “I will not stoop to conquer” in largely rejecting efforts to remake her into a popular singer. From the late-1960s, she concentrated on raising her daughter Rainy with her husband, Shepherd Deering (whom she had married in 1955) and largely limited her performances to her native Washington, D.C., while she often worked full-time as an office worker.
Once her family was grown, she began touring more widely from 1978 onwards. She is best known for her recordings with Verve Records since 1987. Horn was nominated for nine Grammy Awards during her career, winning in 1999 for Jazz Vocal Album for I Remember Miles, a tribute to her friend and encourager.
Preferring to perform in small settings, as with her trio, she recorded with orchestra too, as on the 1992 album Here’s to life, which is highly rated by her fans, the title song being generally considered as her signature song. Arranger Johnny Mandel won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocal(s) for that album. A video documentary of Horn’s life and music was released at the same time as “Here’s To Life” and shared its title. At the time Mandel commented that Horn’s piano skill was comparable to that of the noted jazz great Bill Evans. A follow-up was made in 2001, named You’re My Thrill.
Shirley Horn kept for twenty five years the same rhythm section: Charles Ables (bass) and Steve Williams (drums). Don Heckman wrote in the Los Angeles Times (February 2, 1995) about “the importance of bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams to the Horn’s sound. Working with boundless subtlety, following her every spontaneous twist and turn, they were the ideal accompanists for a performer who clearly will tolerate nothing less than perfection”.
She was officially recognized by the 109th US Congress for “her many achievements and contributions to the world of jazz and American culture”, and performed at The White House for several U.S. presidents. Horn was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Berklee College of Music in 2002.
She was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award in 2005., (the highest honors that the United States bestows upon jazz musicians).
Due to health problems in the early 2000s, Horn had to cut back on her appearances. From 2002, a foot amputation (from complications of diabetes) forced her to leave the piano playing to pianist George Mesterhazy. In late 2004, Horn felt able to play piano again, and recorded a live album for Verve live at Manhattan’s Au Bar with trumpet player Roy Hargrove, which did not satisfy her. It remains unreleased except for three tracks on But Beautiful – the best of Shirley Horn.
She had been battling breast cancer and diabetes when she died from complications of a massive stroke, aged 71. She is interred at Ft. Lincoln Cemetery in Washington, D.C.