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Shirley Horn Biography

Took to the Piano Early, Career Sparked by Miles Davis, Focused on Being a Homemaker


Jazz singer, pianist

Horn, Shirley, photograph. Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images.

"Songs are lucky when Shirley Horn chooses them," wrote New York Times jazz critic John Parelis, according to the National Public Radio Web site. Horn started as a child playing the big, old piano in her grandmother's parlor and grew to become a classically trained pianist whom Miles Davis once called his favorite singer. According to Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler in the Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Horn possessed a "distinctive timbre and unhurried pace," which, combined with her "subtle" work on the piano, "make for a singularly effective style." After a two-decade break from the spotlight to raise her child, Horn re-launched her career in 1988 to great acclaim. Throughout her sixties, Horn continued to tour and record music for the Verve record label. Working up until her death in 2005, she never lost her passion for her art: "I just want to get the music right," she once told Essence. Her multiple awards, including seven consecutive Grammy nominations and award for best jazz vocal performance in 1998, attest to her ability to do just that.

Took to the Piano Early

Born on May 1, 1934, in Washington, D.C., Horn remembered playing her grandmother's piano when she was four years old. Her mother was a homemaker and her father was a government worker. Uninterested in playing with the neighborhood children, Horn enjoyed nothing more than to play that piano, and would close herself off in her grandmother's parlor, which was kept for guests and was chillier than the rest of the house. After several years of this, her mother, who admired classical music, enrolled the girl in piano lessons.

Horn was surrounded by music in her family, and admitted that the majority of the songs in her repertoire are those she heard while she was growing up. She played with a choir, at Sunday school, and won a talent contest and 13-week radio engagement at age 13. Horn studied piano and composition at Howard University Junior School of Music, in Washington, from age 12 to age 18. Although her talent won her a scholarship to Juilliard School of Music in New York City, she continued at Howard University due to financial limitations.

Though she focused on the piano works of great Western classical composers, it was jazz that eventually captured Horn's fancy. At age 17, Horn began playing in a local restaurant and nightclub. Her fans included one older man who brought a teddy bear as big as Horn, saying it was hers if she would only sing the classic "Melancholy Baby." So the trained pianist was forced into singing. "I was very shy and it was hard for me to sing," Horn said in her Verve biography, "but I wanted that teddy bear." Horn realized she could earn more money as a vocalist, but continued to play piano and to develop her singing and playing skills, and formed her own trio in 1954. "[Horn] fuses voice and piano into a single expression," lyricist and writer Joel Siegel told National Public Radio (NPR).

Career Sparked by Miles Davis

Her marriage at age 21 to Sheppard Deering, a mechanic, put a damper on her musical career, and Horn performed live only around the Washington, and Baltimore, Maryland areas. She released her first recording, Embers and Ashes, on the small Stereo-Craft record label in 1961. The album went mostly unnoticed, but caught the attention of legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who tracked Horn down and invited her to New York to open for him at the Village Vanguard. Davis threw his weight around with the club's owner to get the unknown Horn on the bill—he swore that he would not play if Horn was not allowed to perform. Davis drew a highbrow crowd to the shows, which included Charles Mingus, Sidney Poitier, and Lena Horne, who all became lifelong fans of Horn's.

Horn and Davis, known for his disdain for most vocalists, were drawn together by their very similar approach to music. Both artists "are recognized for their use of space—long silences between notes—to create a certain tension, particularly when doing ballads," according to the NPR profile of Horn. The style creates a kind of "suspense," according to Siegel. Though the two diverged musically throughout the 1960s, Davis remained a close friend and mentor of Horn's until his death in 1991.

Horn recorded Shirley Horn with Horns and Loads of Love with producer Quincy Jones for the Mercury record label. Mercury wanted Horn to focus on her vocal skills, and she had been signed as a vocalist, so a studio musician played piano on the recordings. The arrangement was not right for Horn, who would have preferred to play the music herself. If she had had more control, she also may have chosen slower arrangements of the songs than Jones did, a signature she developed in her later years.

Focused on Being a Homemaker

After her Mercury contract ran out in the early 1960s, Horn went into semi-retirement and retreated back to Washington, DC, to raise her daughter, Rainy. She continued to play live shows locally with her own trio, which included Charles Able on bass and Steve Williams on drums. Though she recorded a few albums during this time, including Travelin' Light, A Lazy Afternoon, Violets for Your Furs, At Northsea, All Night Long, and Garden of the Blues, Horn remained out of the spotlight for the better part of 25 years. A dedicated wife, mother, and homemaker, Horn was a skilled handywoman and cook. "When I am not packing and unpacking my bags, I'm basically a homebody who is just as comfortable standing over a stove or hammering a nail as I am playing a piano," she told Down Beat.

At a Glance …

Born on May 1, 1934, in Washington, DC; died on October 20, 2005, of diabetes in Washington, DC; married Sheppard Deering (a mechanic), c. 1955; children: Rainy. Education: Howard University Junior School of Music, studied composition, c. 1946–50; studied six years privately.

Career: Jazz vocalist and pianist, 1950s–2005; formed first jazz trio, 1954; toured and recorded with jazz artists Miles Davis, Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, and Toots Thielemans, among others; took recording hiatus, 1960s–1986; revived performing and recording career, 1986.

Awards: Mayor's Arts Award for Excellence in an Artistic Discipline, Mayor of Washington, DC, 1987; Billie Holiday award, Academie Du Jazz, France, 1990; Edison Populair HR57 Award, for Here's to Life, 1993; Lionel Hampton Jazz Hall of Fame inductee, 1996; Grammy award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance, for I Remember Miles, 1998; Phineas Newborn Jr. Award, 1999; five Wammy awards; Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence, 2003; ASCAP Wall of Fame, Living Legend, 2005; National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, 2005.

Horn experienced a tremendous surge in her career in the 1980s. While playing the piano with friends late one night in a hotel where a music convention was being held, Horn drew the attention of music industry producers. Producer Richard Seidel, the prestigious Verve record label signed Horn and her trio to a recording contract in 1986. Horn's comeback with Verve was a live album, I Thought About You, recorded at the Vine St. Bar and Grill in Hollywood with Able and Williams and released in 1987.

Revived Recording Career

The second phase of Horn's career proved to be her most glorious. Close Enough for Love, Horn's studio debut for Verve, was released in 1988 and officially marked Horn's return to the jazz limelight. It did not take long for jazz fans to turn to Horn for her distinctive vocals and solid jazz skills on piano. Her audience grew quickly after these first two releases for Verve. Extensive touring in the United States and abroad at prestigious jazz venues consolidated her growing popularity, and Horn's Paris and Carnegie Hall debuts, both in 1991, were proof that Horn was back and better than ever.

Almost thirty years after their first pairing, Horn and Miles Davis appeared together again on her 1990 Verve release, You Won't Forget Me. Davis played trumpet alongside guests Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Horn then began working with arranger Johnny Mandel.

She trusted Mandel "implicitly" the first time she met him, according to liner notes from You're My Thrill. The two worked together for the first time on 1991's Here's to Life, on which Mandel paired Horn with a string section and orchestra for the first time. Ables and Williams accompanied Horn again on the collection of mostly slow ballads that play off Horn's instinct for improvisation and chord voicing. Mandel won a Best Arrangement Grammy award for his work on the recording.

A seasoned live performer, Horn was especially fond of European audiences. She recorded her album, I Love You, Paris, live in France at the famed Theatre du Chatelet. The audience proved particularly fond of Horn, as well. "They were so quiet that I was glad when someone coughed," she told Down Beat, "because it let me know somebody was out there … I am at a loss to explain this adoration and why I'm so popular."

Billboard reported in 1995 that Horn was getting back to the old days of jazz to record an upcoming album, The Main Ingredient. Rather than record at a studio, Horn convinced Verve to let her do the work in her own home, in the spirit of the old jazz sessions, where musicians would drop by for informal jazz sessions and dinner parties that lasted through the night. Jazz players like Buck Hill and Steve Novosel were among those who showed up at Horn's door for good food and good music, which was recorded by a Big Mo Studios' mobile recording studio parked in her driveway. The group of Horn's friends, old and new, recorded a blend of ballads and jumping, up-tempo songs. On the mellow end were the Hal David/Burt Bacharach tune "The Look of Love," a slowed version of Peggy Lee's "Fever," and the Melissa Manchester tearjerker "Come in From the Rain." On the up-tempo side, they captured Fats Waller's "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," "Blues for Sarge," and "All or Nothing at All." The result was classic Horn, "once again succeeding admirably in giving favorite songs an easygoing beauty," according to Down Beat.

Won Accolades

Horn was able to salute her friend and mentor, Miles Davis, on 1998's I Remember Miles. "Full of real warmth and obvious admiration," wrote critic Ralph Novak in People, "singer-pianist Horn's latest album is more informed than the usual tribute." Besides being personally close, the two musicians' approaches to jazz were quite similar. "Horn's minimalist affinities with Miles are so obvious," wrote Paul de Barros in Down Beat. de Barros found it surprising she had not recording something like it before. Horn took on Davis's renditions of "My Funny Valentine," "Summertime," "I've Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," "My Man's Gone Now," "Basin Street Blues," and "Blue In Green." The mood Horn created on the record was so complete, so true to Davis, de Barros continued, that "the project makes you shiver." The album won a Grammy award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1998.

In addition to her Grammy and seven additional Grammy nominations, Horn received many honors and accolades throughout her career. She was awarded the Mayor's Arts Award for Excellence in an Artistic Discipline by the mayor of Washington, D.C., in 1987, the Academie Du Jazz's Billie Holiday Award France in 1990, and the Edison Populair HR57 Award for Here's to Life in 1993. She was elected to the Lionel Hampton Hall of Fame in 1996 and was honored by the president of the ASCAP in 1998. She received five Wammys, the Washington area's music industry award, and was been voted Number One female vocalist in the New York Jazz Critics Awards and Number One jazz vocalist in Down Beat magazine's Critics' Poll. In 1999 Horn was honored by an impressive array of jazz musicians at New York's Merkin Hall, where she received the Phineas Newborn, Jr. Award for her lifelong contributions to jazz. Those honoring her included pianist Marian McPartland, bassist Buster Williams, and drummer Yoron Israel. "Shirley picks beautiful songs and knows how to perform them," McPartland told Down Beat. "I've never known anyone that could do a ballad that slowly and keep it musical, keep it happening." Carrie Smith, Russell Malone, John Hicks, David Williams, Jon Faddis, and Etta Jones, among many others, also performed. Similar tributes followed in the coming years, culminating in a 2004 tribute at the Kennedy Center and being honored in 2005 with the nation's top jazz award: National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

One year into the new millennium, at the age of 67, Horn released You're My Thrill. A decade after they first worked together, Mandel rejoined Horn as arranger, and Ables and Williams completed Horn's standard trio. After 29 years with Ables and 21 with Williams, Horn treasured her relationship with the two. "It takes time," she told Down Beat, "to find the right musicians. Sometimes we are so close when we play that we are moving as one. That kind of unity is so rare. It's magic." Together, they alternated "lush orchestral pieces" with "vibrant small-group tunes," wrote critic Philip Booth in Down Beat. "I Got Lost In His Arms," "My Heart Stood Still," "The Very Thought Of You," "The Best Is Yet To Come," "The Rules Of The Road," and "Why Don't You Do Right?" were among the album's highlights, though "There's a certain assured musical sophistication that defines everything Shirley Horn touches," Booth continued. Critic Lynn Norment declared in Ebony that Horn "is the premier jazz balladeer."

Horn continued touring and performing even after her left foot was amputated in 2001. Although complications from strokes and diabetes led to her death at age 71 in 2005, Booth's words remain a fitting tribute to Horn's legacy. Ron Goldstein, President and CEO of the Verve Music Group, remembered Horn on the Verve Music Group Web site as "a true innovator. She created a unique style of playing and singing that was not only original, but so penetrating and so much her own that few dared try to copy it." Fittingly her last album is titled May the Music Never End.

Selected discography

Embers and Ashes, Stereo-Craft, 1959.
Live at the Village Vanguard, Can-Am, 1961.
Shirley Horn with Horns, Mercury, 1963.
Loads of Love, Mercury, 1963.
Travelin' Light, ABC/Paramount, 1965.
A Lazy Afternoon, Steeple Chase, 1978.
Violets for Your Furs, Steeple Chase, 1981.
At Northsea, Steeple Chase, 1981.
All Night Long, Steeple Chase, 1981.
Garden of the Blues, Steeple Chase, 1984.
I Thought About You [live], Verve, 1987.
Softly, Audiophile, 1987.
Close Enough for Love, Verve, 1988.
You Won't Forget Me, Verve, 1990.
Shirley Horn with Strings, Verve, 1991.
Here's to Life, Verve, 1991.
I Love You, Paris [live], Verve, 1992.
Light out of Darkness, Verve, 1993.
The Main Ingredient, Verve, 1995.
Loving You, Verve, 1997.
I Remember Miles, Verve, 1998.
You're My Thrill, Verve, 2001.
May the Music Never End, Verve, 2003.



Carney Smith, Jessie, editor, Notable Black American Women, Gale Research, 1999.

Cook, Richard, and Morton, Brian, Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Penguin Books, 2000.

Erlewine, Michael, editor, All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman, 1998.

Feather, Leonard, and Gitler, Ira, Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1999.


Billboard, June 10, 1995, p. 68.

Down Beat, November 1994, p. 26; June 1996, p. 46; July 1998, p. 60; September 1998, p. 23; May 1999, p. 18; May 2001, p. 72.

Ebony, March 2001, p. 162; November 2005, p. 57.

Essence, August 2001, p. 60.

Interview, March 2001, p. 142.

Jet, January 17, 2005, p. 59; November 28, 2005, p. 58.

Newsweek, October 31, 2005, p. 10.

People, June 15, 1998, p. 43.

U.S. News and World Reports, March 19, 2001, p. 62.

Variety, October 31, 2005, p. 73.


All Music Guide, www.allmusic.com (September 24, 2001).

Bernstein, Adam, "Mesmerizing Jazz Singer and Pianist," Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/21/AR2005102101624.html (March 14, 2006).

National Public Radio, www.npr.org/programs/jazzprofiles/shorn.html (September 24, 2001).

"Jazz Great Shirley Horn Dies," Verve Music Group, http://vervemusicgroup.com/buzz.aspx?bid=497 (March 14, 2006).

"Jazz Star Shirley Horn Dies at 71," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/music/4366946.stm (March 14, 2006).

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