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Jazz Remembered


Shirley Horn


Shirley Horn

Shirley Horn in 1961 - publicity photograph by Bruno Bernard


Here is a video of Shirley Horn playing and singing Basin Street Blues with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis at the Lincoln Centre.




Pianist and vocalist Shirley Horn was born in Washington 1934. Before she was of legal age she was going into jazz clubs in Washington's famous U Street and by the age of twenty she had her first jazz piano trio. At twenty six she was noticed by Miles Davis who informed the management of New York's Village Vanguard club that he wouldn't play his show unless an unknown singer called Shirley Horn played the opening set.

Shirley had taken piano lessons from the age of four (her grandmother was an organist), and went on to study piano and composition at Shirley Horn and Miles DavisHarvard. Her influences were Erroll Garner, Oscar Peterson and Ahmed Jamal and she is reported to have said: "Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninov, and Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy."


Shirley Horn and Miles Davis


Before attracting the attention of Miles, she had recorded several songs with violinist Stuff Smith in 1959 both as a pianist and a singer and in the early 1960s she recorded on various labels before being signed by the more prominent Mercury and Impulse labels. Miles Davis heard her first album, Embers and Ashes, recorded in 1960, and later that year brought her to the Village Vanguard. She then toured briefly, and in 1963 recorded for the Mercury label with high-class partners including the pianist Hank Jones and guitarist Kenny Burrell. Quincy Jones described her rich voice as "like clothing, as she seduces you with her voice", but when the Beatles and other popular bands took over in the mid 1960s, she resisted attempts to popularise her material. Instead, she stepped back to raise her daughter, only giving local performances.



Even so, she later recorded the Beatles' Yesterday for the album May The Music Never End.




Shirley owned a local club for some years - and in 1978, Washington drummer Billy Hart arranged a crucial recording contract with Copenhagen's Steeplechase label resulting in the album A Lazy Afternoon, and Billy again worked with Shirley on the 1981 live album At Northsea.

Wikipedia suggests that it wasn't until the 1990s that she emerged again, but in John Fordham's obituary for Shirley in The Guardian, he says that Shirley's 'reputation finally took off at an informal late-night recital at a music-industry event in a Washington hotel in 1980 (she was then 46), the reclusive artist stunning an influential audience with a show that had set out to be only a casual dialogue with friends.' In 1991, Miles Davis guested on an album aptly titled You Won't Forget Me. Listen to Miles playing on a track from the album.




Shirley Horn Trio

A year later Shirley made the unusual decision to record with an orchestra rather than her usual trio. The 1992 album Here's To Life, (the title track became her signature tune) was accompanied by a video documentary under the same title looking back at Shirley's life and music. Her trio with Charles Ables (bass) and Steve Williams (drums) played together for 25 years.


Steve Williams, Shirley Horn and Charles Ables.


Her albums Here's to Life, Light Out of Darkness (A Tribute to Ray Charles) and I Love You, Paris all reached number one on the Billboard jazz charts.


Here is a video of Shirley singing Here's To Life in 1993 with John Williams and the Boston Pops orchestra.




In the early 2000s, Shirley was making fewer performances. In 2002 she had a foot amputation because of complications with her diabetes and for a while she was obliged to delegate the piano playing to George Mesterhazy. In late 2004, Shiley made a recording comeback for the Verve label at Manhattan's Au Bar with trumpet player Roy Hargrove, (although she was not happy with the recording). Apparently it remains unreleased except for tracks on the album But Beautiful - The Best of Shirley Horn.

Shirley died in 2005 at the age of 71 having suffered from breast cancer although it was further complications with her diabetes that was the main cause..

During her career she had also played with Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans, Ron Carter, Carmen McRae and Wynton Marsalis.

Listen to Someone To Watch Over Me with the harmonica of Toots Thielemans.




She was nominated for nine Grammy Awards during her career and won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance at the 41st Grammy Awards for I Remember Miles, (the album's cover featuring a Miles Davis drawing of them both). Here she is playing piano on Blue In Green from the album.




Shirley Horn was 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. In 2002 she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Berklee College of Music. John Fordham said of Shirley Horn in the obituary mentioned before that she was 'a soft-voiced, lazily eloquent performer, had much of Billie Holiday's patient audacity about the pacing of songs - and she more generally exhibited the same disinclination to run if she could walk'; arranger Johnny Mandel is said to have commented that Shiley Horn's piano skill was comparable to that of pianist Bill Evans.

Here is a video of Shirley Horn playing Corcovado with her trio in 1999.




Click here for more about Shirley Horn.


Shirley Horn




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