Born May 1, 1934, in Washington, DC; married Shep Deering (a mechanic), c. 1956; children: Rainy (daughter). Education: Studied composition at Howard University Junior School of Music, c. 1946-50; studied six years privately. Addresses: Record company-- Verve Records, 825 8th Ave., New York, NY 10019.
Trained to play time-honored classical masterpieces, jazz vocalist and pianist Shirley Horn switched to jazz at the age of 17. When a patron of the Washington, D.C., restaurant where she performed classical music handed her a four-foot turquoise bear after she sang his request, "Melancholy Baby," Horn disclosed to John S. Wilson in a New York Times profile, "Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninoff and Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy." In 1991 "the enthralling Shirley Horn," as she has been called in Down Beat magazine, released her 14th record, Billboard' s Number One jazz album, You Won't Forget Me. The record, which features jazz greats Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Toots Thielemans, and Miles Davis, caused a sensation.
A singer who kept her career on a slow but sure path, Horn has long made her home life her highest priority. As the nineties dawned, however, Horn--nearing sixty--was "front and center," reported Jay Cocks in Time, with a sold-out debut in Paris and a premiere at New York City's prestigious Carnegie Hall. Cocks observed that "her jazz essence--is still intact. It's what draws you first when you hear the smoky timber of her voice, the leisured elegance of her phrasing. And it's what holds you, wondering about the magic she brings to tunes as varied as 'Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying' and 'You Won't Forget Me.'"
Born on May 1, 1934, in Washington, D.C., Horn was a child prodigy who started piano lessons at four. At 12 she began studying classical composition at the Howard University Junior School of Music; when Horn did not have adequate funds to accept the scholarship she had won to the famed Juilliard School--which would have necessitated her living in New York City--her doctor uncle paid for four years of lessons at Howard. The owner of the Washington restaurant where she played classical music routinely in late adolescence requested that she sing jazz after he heard her vocal rendition of "Melancholy Baby." Horn effectively studied jazz by watching dinner shows at Washington's Olivia's Patio Lounge. Comfortable with the intimate style of a small group, she formed the first of her trademark trios in 1954.
In 1959 Horn's ensemble released Embers and Ashes on the Stereo-Craft label, an event that prompted legendary jazz trumpet player Miles Davis to take note. He phoned Horn, reaching her at her mother-in-law's Virginia residence, to invite her to New York to perform with him at the revered Village Vanguard. "Opening night was like something out of a dream," she told New York Times contributor Wilson. "Lena Horne was there and Claudia McNeill. And Sidney Poitier offered me a drink. After the set, I sat in the kitchen of the club with Miles and the guys in his band--Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. I was in heaven!"
Though a five-year recording contract with Mercury Records followed her Vanguard debut, Horn made only three albums before becoming disenchanted with the music industry. Accustomed to accompanying herself on piano, she was uneasy as a stand-up singer backed by an orchestra. Touring and drug use--the latter almost as inescapable in the music scene as the former--were particularly distasteful to Horn, especially after she lost three friends to drugs. Crowds she disliked might watch her disappear in the middle of a set, never to return; her heart was elsewhere--with her husband, Shep Deering, a mechanic for the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Transit Authority, and her daughter, Rainey, born in 1962. Horn chose to sing close to home in the Bohemian Caverns until civil disturbances, which erupted in Washington in 1967, closed that venue. During the 1960s and seventies she confined her performances to the capital area and recorded infrequently. Exceptions were theme songs for the films For Love of Ivy and Dandy in Aspic, which Horn's producer, Quincy Jones, specially requested.
Those who criticized Horn for passing up important career opportunities in her early years failed to understand her dogged need to go her own way and cultivate her unique personal style. "That wonderful sense of drama," explained jazz critic Martin Williams in Time, "can turn any little song into a three-minute one-act play." Of her measured approach to singing, Horn divulged to Time' s Cocks, "It's just the way I feel about a song. They call me the slowest singer in the world, but I don't talk fast either. You're trying to tell a story, paint a picture."
In the 1980s--by which time Horn's daughter had approached adulthood--the mood characterizing jazz became more receptive to the singer's unusual technique. It was then that Horn heeded the urging of Georgetown University professor Joel E. Siegel to resume her career. In the summer of 1981 she received a standing ovation at the North Sea Jazz Festival at The Hague, in the Netherlands. Later that year she accepted Siegel's invitation to perform in the concert series at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. Her club circuit soon broadened beyond Washington to including jazz spots like Michael's Pub in New York City. Although reviewers were paying attention to her recordings of that period, Horn's albums had yet to garner significant royalties. A Stereo Review assessment of her 1989 effort, Close Enough for Love, read, "Though Horn has never reached the heights of success attained by Nina Simone or Roberta Flack, both of whom fall into roughly the same stylistic category, it is certainly not for lack of talent."
In 1991 Horn released You Won't Forget Me. A collaboration with her trio regulars Charles Ables, on bass, and Steve Williams, on drums, the album rose to Number One on Billboard' s jazz charts and provided Horn the stellar media treatment that had eluded her for decades. Jazz critics made much of her choice of support musicians--Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Toots Thielemans, and Miles Davis, who had not played sideman to a singer for the preceding 20 years. " You Won't Forget Me ... should finally bring Ms. Horn acclaim as a jazz vocalist worthy of comparison with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae," predicted Stephen Holden in The New York Times. "It looked like an overnight success story," summed up John Leland in Newsweek. "But only now ... is Horn enjoying the stature that must have seemed within easy reach thirty years ago." Time printed a particularly succinct appraisal: "It may also be read as an unconditional guarantee: Shirley Horn is indelible."
In the wake of her triumph with You Won't Forget Me, Horn commented to Time contributor Cocks on the media hype that had alluded her throughout her 40-year career. "It's been written that Shirley Horn is back on the scene," she said. "Well, I haven't been anywhere. And I've been busy." Horn has been busy, indeed, and--at long last--has reached the pinnacle of the jazz world on her own terms. "Horn's career," asserted Newsweek' s Leland, "come to fruition at its own pace, can now proceed under its own power."
by Marjorie Burgess
Shirley Horn's Career
Jazz vocalist and pianist; performed in Washington, DC, restaurants, c. 1951; formed first jazz trio, 1954; released debut album, Embers and Ashes, 1959; performed throughout the DC-Baltimore, MD, area until the 1980s; toured and recorded with jazz artists Miles Davis, Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, and Toots Thielemans, among others; performed in the U.S. and abroad at prestigious jazz venues; debuted in Paris, and at Carnegie Hall, New York City, both in 1991; performed theme songs to films For Love of Ivy, Cinerama, and Dandy in Aspic, Columbia, both 1968.
- Selective Works
- Embers and Ashes Stereo-Craft, 1959.
- I Thought About You Verve, 1987.
- Close Enough for Love Verve, 1989.
- Loads of Love: Shirley Horn With Horns Mercury, 1990.
- You Won't Forget Me , Verve, 1991.
October 20, 2005: Horn died October 20, 2005, in Washington, D.C., after a long illness. She was 71. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com, October 26, 2005.
- Down Beat, December 1990.
- Newsweek, April 29, 1991.
- New York Times, May 28, 1982; January 23, 1991.
- People, March 25, 1991.
- Stereo Review, August 1989.
- Time, March 25, 1991.