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Correction to This Article
An Oct. 22 obituary of Shirley Horn incorrectly stated that her final appearance was at the Kennedy Center in December 2004. That was her final Washington performance. She later performed in other cities, including New York and New Orleans.
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Mesmerizing Jazz Singer and Pianist

Shirley Horn was honored in December at the Kennedy Center.
Shirley Horn was honored in December at the Kennedy Center. (By Larry Busacca -- Verve)

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Shirley Valerie Horn was born May 1, 1934, in Washington to a General Accounting Office clerk and a homemaker. She began her career as a pianist at age 4, encouraged by a mother who had hopes that she would be a pioneering black classical artist.

She learned piano on her grandmother's parlor upright and began to study at Howard University at age 12. She won a scholarship to Juilliard in New York, but financial considerations kept her in Washington, where she continued her training at Howard before focusing on jazz.

"Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninoff, and Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy," she later said.

As a teenage musician, she attracted a small following around Washington while playing in cocktail lounges. One night, an older customer promised her a four-foot-tall turquoise teddy bear if she would sing "My Melancholy Baby."

"I was very shy and it was hard for me to sing," Horn said in her Verve Records biography, "but I wanted that teddy bear."

She incorporated singing into her act to earn extra money and by the mid-1950s was fronting a small band at Olivia's Patio Lounge, Bohemian Caverns and other clubs in the District's U Street jazz corridor.

She rarely ventured beyond Baltimore at the behest of her husband, Sheppard Deering, a Metro mechanic.

He survives her, along with a daughter, Rainy Smith of Lanham; two brothers, Ernie Horn and Dale Horn, both of Washington; and two grandsons.

After the release of her first album, "Embers and Ashes," she received the call from Davis asking her to open for him at the Village Vanguard club in New York.

She thought a friend was playing a prank and was still disbelieving when she arrived in Manhattan. "When I got there, to sort of prove that he really knew about me, he had his kids singing songs from 'Embers and Ashes,' " she once told the New York Times.

Davis used his legendary obstinacy to Horn's advantage, threatening the Vanguard's owner that he would not play his engagement if the unknown singer did not get star treatment in publicity and other matters.

His generosity was matched by his eccentricity, she later told The Washington Post: "One night I was playing 'My Funny Valentine' with my group, and Miles started playing from behind a pillar. But he wouldn't come out."

The engagement heralded a hopeful phase in her career. At the Vanguard, she met actor Sidney Poitier, who "came up to me and said how much he enjoyed my music and kissed my hand. I almost fainted." She sang on the soundtrack of his film "For Love of Ivy" (1968).

The Vanguard exposure led to a contract with Mercury Records, where she worked with Jones on two albums, "Shirley Horn With Horns" and "Loads of Love" (both 1963). Despite working with top-flight musicians, Horn was displeased.

"They wanted to groom me as a stand-up singer," she once told the Baltimore Sun. "And I thought, 'This ain't right. I play piano.' I felt so uncomfortable, standing in this little booth singing off the lyric sheets there in front of me. . . . Those records were not me."

She returned to Washington and resumed a family life with occasional, if frustrating, bids for wider recognition during the rise of rock and disco music and at a time when jazz clubs were closing.

While her career was reviving in the 1980s, she began to go beyond Washington for appearances with her longtime musical partners, bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams. After signing a deal with Verve, her live recording at Hollywood's Vine St. Bar and Grill, "I Thought About You" (1987), became her first major-label release in 20 years.

"Shirley Horn need no longer be called a cult artist or a legend," jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote in the Los Angeles Times. "Without question she is the singer of the year, and arguably the pianist too."

She performed before sold-out crowds in the world's leading concert halls and attracted a star-studded roster of musical guest artists. On her album "You Won't Forget Me" (1990), she was joined by Davis, who played in his classic 1950s style on one of his last recordings before his death in 1991. Other performers included harmonica player Toots Thielemans and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.

In 1992, she fulfilled a long-held desire to be backed by strings and worked with composer-arranger Johnny Mandel on the album "Here's to Life," which spent 16 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard jazz chart. Two of her other albums, "I Love You, Paris" (1992) and "Light Out of Darkness (A Tribute to Ray Charles)" (1993), also reached No. 1.

In 1995, she recorded an album, "The Main Ingredient," in her Northeast Washington home. The record, released the following year, included a recipe for the beef stew Horn cooked for saxophonist Joe Henderson, drummer Elvin Jones and other musicians who performed on the record and lingered at her house through the night.

She was inducted into the Washington Area Music Awards Hall of Fame in 1987 and recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts for lifelong contributions to jazz last year.

She was a habitual smoker of Pall Malls and a devotee of the soap opera "The Young and the Restless," sometimes insisting on changing hotel rooms when TV reception was poor. She valued her family's privacy and, for years, hung a hand-printed card on her front door: "If you have not contacted me, don't ring the bell: The Management."

Staff writer Matt Schudel contributed to this report.


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