By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 22, 2005
Shirley Horn, a smoky-voiced jazz balladeer and pianist who was resigned to being a musical fixture in her native Washington before emerging as a national presence in her fifties and winning a Grammy Award, died Thursday of complications from diabetes at Gladys Spellman Specialty Hospital and Nursing Center in Cheverly. She was 71.
With her slow, meditative ballads, Horn was one of the leading jazz singers of her generation and unquestionably was Washington's preeminent jazz musician. After reviving her dormant career in the 1980s, she made a series of triumphant concert appearances and strong-selling recordings that earned nine Grammy nominations. Her performances at the White House in 1994 and at New York's Lincoln Center in 1998 were broadcast nationally on PBS.
An uncompromising perfectionist, she worked hard to develop a personal, pensive sound. Her artistry had long depended on the interaction between voice and piano, but in 2001, Horn's right foot was amputated because of her diabetes. As a result, it was difficult for her to use the elegant pedal work that marked her piano style.
Later, she would sometimes remove the shoe from her prosthetic foot and manipulate the piano's sustain pedal with the force of her hip. In her final public appearance, in December at the Kennedy Center, she climbed from her wheelchair to the piano and performed what had become her signature song, "Here's to Life."
Horn was a piano virtuoso as a child, focusing initially on classical training until she discovered the music of Erroll Garner and other jazz pianists. Her first jazz record, in 1960, was on a minor label, and she remained forever mystified about how trumpeter Miles Davis found a copy. He appreciated the lingering silences of her music, similar to his own style at the time.
In later years, Horn won legions of listeners with her exaggeratedly slow, intimate ballads in which her words seemed to melt in the air.
"I've never known anyone that could do a ballad that slowly and keep it musical, keep it happening," pianist Marian McPartland told Down Beat magazine. Horn was a strong influence on many younger singers, including jazz pianist-vocalist Diana Krall.
Davis's early advocacy of Horn's work led to a wider introduction to the New York jazz world and enabled her to meet producer Quincy Jones. When her albums for Jones misfired -- she was frustrated to be cast as a stand-up singer -- she found herself without a contract and back in Washington as jazz was fast losing ground to rock and other pop sounds.
She performed when possible but settled primarily into a life as a wife and mother, demurring from some festival dates that might have given her greater exposure.
In 1980, while attending a musicians' convention in Washington's Shoreham Hotel, she sat down at the piano sometime after midnight one night with some old friends. The performance apparently dazzled many in the crowd, including recording executives and concert promoters.
She then accepted an invitation to the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, and her mesmerizing concert led to a career resurgence. She received a contract with the prestigious Verve record label and was championed by leading jazz critics.
Her reborn career culminated in a Grammy for best jazz vocal performance in 1998 for "I Remember Miles," a tribute to her former mentor. The album cover featured an illustration Davis had made of them years earlier.
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.