Shirley Horn holds a cigarette to her lips between gloved fingers. She drags on it deeply, slowly. And when that one is done, she lights another. And another. And another until the pack is empty. Then she calls out to her quiet husband of 49 years, Shep Deering, for more Pall Malls, which he promptly retrieves from another room.
The Grammy-winning jazz singer-pianist sits at a card table inside her sparsely furnished living room - surrounded by freshly painted ivory walls, plush Kelly green carpet underfoot. Horn is in a motorized wheelchair, her "Cadillac," as she calls it. She has been using it since she lost her right foot to diabetes three years ago.
Because her old home in southwest Washington, D.C., had too many steps, Horn and her husband moved last September to this comfortable, stair-free red-brick house, which sits atop a sylvan hill in Upper Marlboro.
On Saturday evening, the Kennedy Center will present a special tribute concert honoring Horn's 50-year career. Her affecting, molasses-slow way with a ballad and impressionistic piano playing have secured her a cultlike international fan base. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Regina Carter, Lizz Wright, Stefon Harris and others are scheduled to perform with the shy, creamy-skinned woman who doesn't like to discuss her age.
"My age?" she asks, laughing. "Oh, man. I'm 60-something, OK? Next question."
Among Horn's biggest champions early in her career were Miles Davis, who introduced her as a 25-year-old to New York's hip jazz crowd, red-carpet style, in 1961; Quincy Jones, who signed the artist to her first major label contract when he was an executive at Mercury Records; and Carmen McRae, the famously surly jazz legend who revered and befriended the younger artist.
In fact, the native Washing- tonian's acclaim was so wide and immediate in the early '60s, Horn could have been a much bigger star - perhaps on the holy level of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Although Horn enjoyed the attention and recording with such "album cover" musicians as pianist Jimmy Jones and guitarist Kenny Burrell, she had bigger priorities at the time: her husband and her baby daughter, Rainy. So the on-the-verge performer declined many potentially lucrative offers.
Stardom had to wait nearly 30 years.
Horn doesn't like to talk about herself. She's a musician. Period. But one listen to any of her Verve albums, particularly her most popular, Shirley Horn With Strings: Here's to Life from 1992, and you know that she's much more than just a "piano player who sings a little bit." With a ballad, Horn suspends time. The cashmere subtlety of her voice, her economical use of notes, the way she improvises colors and tones is often hypnotic, movingly surreal. But she can swing as hard as she pleases with a rhythmic gait that recalls her heroes: Oscar Peterson and Nat "King" Cole.
"I think the main thing about Shirley is that she believes in telling a story," says Rhonda Hamilton, host of the Pure Jazz channel on Sirius Satellite Radio. The 25-year radio veteran will also host the Kennedy Center tribute. "She takes her time and savors the meaning of every word. Her trademark is taking a tempo exquisitely slow. Not everybody can do that and get to the heart and soul of a song."
Horn, the oldest of three, was a child prodigy who started playing piano at age 4. Her father worked for the CIA; her mother was a homemaker. As a child, Horn was so into music and spent so much time at the piano in the living room that her mother would bribe her to go outside and play with other children.
"I didn't want to play games with the kids outside," says Horn, who talks in a soft, languorous manner, much the way she sings. "All I cared about was the music, you know?"
By age 12, she was studying classical composition at Howard University. Six years later, she won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York. But the move was too expensive and even then, Horn didn't like the idea of being away from home too long. So she declined the scholarship.
Soon afterward, Horn's focus shifted from classical to jazz. "Penthouse Serenade," a 1949 recording by Erroll Garner, made a deep impression on the young musician. She bought every Garner record she could find and studied his complex, two-handed approach, a technique she would eventually absorb into her own.
Around 1954, when Horn was fresh out of high school, she organized her own trio and played small rooms around D.C. Six years later, she recorded her debut, Embers and Ashes, on the small Stereocraft label. The album wasn't a hit, and it was poorly distributed. But Miles Davis, one of jazz's brightest, most influential stars, heard the record and fell in love with it. The next year, in early 1961, the moody trumpeter sought her out.
Newly married at the time to Deering, a dark-eyed, handsome man she met at D.C.'s Atlas Theatre, Horn was visiting her mother-in-law in Virginia when she received a strange call.