Jazz pianist-vocalist had a way with ballads

Shirley Horn 1934-2005

October 22, 2005|By RASHOD D. OLLISON | RASHOD D. OLLISON,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Shirley Horn, Washington native and Grammy-winning jazz pianist and vocalist known for her exquisitely slow ballad style, died Thursday night from complications of diabetes at Gladys Spellman Specialty Hospital and Nursing Center in Cheverly. She was 71.

In a career of more than 50 years, Ms. Horn, who was honored last year at a Kennedy Center tribute concert, became famous for her impressionistic piano playing and the meditative way she rendered ballads. But she was also known for her swinging, rhythmic gait on faster pieces.

Although she had garnered critical acclaim in the early 1960s after being introduced, red-carpet style, to New York's elite jazz crowd by Miles Davis, an early advocate, Ms. Horn wouldn't achieve stardom until the late 1980s. About that time, she had signed to the Verve label, on which she released best-selling albums such as 1990's You Won't Forget Me, which featured Mr. Davis and Wynton Marsalis, and 1992's Here's to Life, whose title cut became a signature tune.

During the 20 years between her last major-label recording, 1965's Travelin' Light with ABC-Paramount, and her time with Verve, Ms. Horn elected to stay close to home and raise her daughter, Rainy Louise. She continued to perform, usually on the weekends, in intimate Washington and Baltimore clubs.

"I was so lonely on the road," Ms. Horn told The Sun last December in an interview from her Upper Marlboro home. "My love for the music was strong. ... But I learned early that the business is not all roses and glory. ... My mother was always home when I was growing up. And I knew my daughter needed me. And I needed her."

In the last four years of her life, Ms. Horn had curtailed her touring after her right foot was amputated because of diabetes; it had become difficult for her to implement the refined pedal work that was part of her piano style. Over time, she learned to manage the pedals by removing the shoe from her prosthetic foot. Her final performance was in January at the Au Bar in New York City. Three songs from that engagement are featured on the album But Beautiful: The Best of Shirley Horn, which appeared in stores last week.

"She was just brilliant. Her phrasing was so sensitive, so poetic and so touching it could take your breath away. She was classically trained, had a tremendous voice and dynamic range," said George Manning, the DJ on a jazz radio show that airs Monday nights on 88.9 FM.

Ms. Horn influenced Diana Krall and a whole new generation of cabaret singers, he added. "She was the unsung hero of all that. Her death is a tremendous loss, believe me."

Shirley Valerie Horn was born in Washington on May 1, 1934, and began playing piano at age 4. By the age of 12, she was studying classical composition at Howard University. She won a scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York, but even then Ms. Horn didn't like the idea of being away from home too long. And the move was too expensive. So she declined the scholarship.

About 1949, after hearing a recording of Erroll Garner's "Penthouse Serenade," Ms. Horn's musical focus shifted from classical to jazz. She soon adopted a complex piano style inspired by the jazz legend. In 1954, when she was 20, Ms. Horn organized her own trio and played small rooms around Washington. Six years later, she recorded her debut, Embers and Ashes, on the small Stereocraft label. Although the album was poorly distributed and promoted, jazz legend Miles Davis heard the record and loved it. The next year, in early 1961, he invited the unknown artist to open for him at the Village Vanguard, a prestigious venue in New York's Greenwich Village.

Not long after that evening, which was photographed by Jet magazine, the singer-pianist's career took off. She landed a major label deal with Mercury Records. But the company tried to groom her as a stand-up singer, and she wasn't allowed to play piano on her first album for the label, 1963's Load of Love.

Another album, Shirley Horn With Horns, followed a few months later. Again, she had minimal creative input on the record. By this time, the artist had a baby girl, and she disliked being away from her.

In the mid-1960s, she sang on two Quincy Jones-produced soundtracks and released the acclaimed Travelin' Light. At this time, the Beatles and Motown had taken the industry by storm. So Ms. Horn retreated from the changing pop landscape to be a wife and mother.

In the late '70s and early '80s, Ms. Horn recorded five well-regarded albums on the tiny Steeple Chase label. But it wasn't until she signed with the major Verve label in 1986 that her career was revived. The next year, she released I Thought About You, a live set recorded at Hollywood's Vine St. Bar and Grill.

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