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Jazz pianist/vocalist Shirley Horn is a cult classic.
A restrained and reticent woman, Horn loathes interviews and seldom appears anywhere other than her hometown, Washington, D.C. "I was born here," she says from the nation's capital. "I've lived here all my life. And I'll be here all my life." As a result, only a relative handful of jazz aficionados west of the Potomac have heard this legend in concert--a fact that makes her first-ever visit to Colorado even more worthy of note. Too bad Horn isn't as enthusiastic about her journey to the Rockies as are her area fans. "It's not easy," she sighs. "When I'm out there on the road, I surround myself with the music. I try to stay as far away from the audience as possible."
Horn began playing piano at age four and studying classical composition at Howard University at twelve. Six years later she won a scholarship to Juilliard, but because of the expense involved in accepting the offer, she opted to remain at Howard. Shortly thereafter she drifted away from classical music and toward the creative challenges of jazz. "I was sneaking a job," she admits. "My parents didn't know I was working in a dining room, playing a couple of hours a night in this lovely place. It was really great." Her initial stab at singing took place at the venue, she recalls. "There was this old man, a very distinguished-looking old man, who came in every night; he'd have dinner, tip his hat and go. Then, one evening close to Christmas, he came in with this turquoise teddy bear that was as tall as me. He sent a note up to the bandstand that said if I would sing 'Melancholy Baby,' the teddy bear was mine. Well, I sang 'Melancholy Baby,' and I got that teddy bear.
"Then the place had to start paying me a few dollars more each night because I was also a singer," she goes on. "And that's just kind of how singing took hold. I was very shy. Very quiet. But I overcame that--you know, that fear. And I started singing."
In 1960 Horn's first recording--Embers and Ashes, issued by the small Stereocraft label--cast a spell on listeners. Among those mesmerized by the platter was Miles Davis, who insisted that Horn open for him at New York's Village Vanguard. Subsequent Horn albums appeared on the Mercury imprint, earning her wider distri-bution and an opportunity to collaborate with Quincy Jones on a number of film soundtracks. Then, in the mid-Sixties, Horn did the unthinkable. Although she was on the cusp of mainstream stardom, she pulled her career off the fast track in order to raise her daughter.
"I have no regrets" about the decision, Horn affirms. "I had to do what I did because I had a mother at home for me. And I needed my daughter as much as she needed me. They get to that age, you know. I was here for her, and I'd do it again." She kept busy during that time, she adds. "I was always doing something with my hands. At one point I made all my gowns. And as a child I loved building. My uncles would take me around with them. When I was a little girl, I didn't have doll babies. I had tools around my stomach--you know, a belt and a little tool chest and all. I watched and learned how to do a lot of building. I built bookcases and cocktail tables. In this house I'm at now, I built a room on the back.
"But," she continues, "it wasn't like I quit playing. With Washington, D.C., being my home, there are a lot of places I could play. I played everything. I played all the government buildings, all the clubs--I even played a funeral parlor one time. It's so hard to be still. I'd be antsy and I'd have to go play or sit in with the guys or whatever. Keep something going. Plus, guys used to come to my house, you know."
These in-home jam sessions are celebrated throughout Horn's current Verve release, The Main Ingredient--her eighth for the company since re-emerging onto the national scene in 1987. It won't be her last: Longtime bandmates Charles Ables and Steve Williams, on bass and drums, respectively, recently recorded tracks with her at a Hollywood nightspot for an upcoming live CD.
On all of her discs, Horn's piano work is superb. But it's her crooning that captures souls. Her singing has often been described as "romantic," but it's much more than that. It's breezy. Airy. Cool. Sensual. Her voice, she says, "was a God-given thing, so I don't really pamper it. You know, I hear a lot of singers going through the changes: 'mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi-mi.' Or doing the tea and the lemon and all that. But I don't do anything about my voice."
By the same token, she doesn't do anything to overexert it, particularly during those few occasions when she ventures beyond the Washington city limits. "I sleep and I look at my TV programs," she concedes. "Look at the soaps and just try to stay inside. It can be rough. Packing and unpacking is a drag. And airlines, you know. Oh, it's not much fun."
Unless you're listening, that is.