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Shirley Horn, 71; Popular Jazz Singer and Pianist Was Known for Expressive Style

October 22, 2005|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Shirley Horn, the Grammy-winning singer and pianist whose richly expressive vocal style made her one of the most popular performers in jazz, died Thursday night in Washington, D.C. She was 71.

Horn died after a lengthy illness, the Verve Music Group, her record label, announced Friday.

Horn lost her right foot to diabetes in 2001 and later much of her right leg. She had also battled breast cancer and arthritis over the last few years.

"We've lost the last of the great ones from that generation," composer Johnny Mandel, who arranged her albums "Here's to Life" and "You're My Thrill," told The Times on Friday. "I think she was the best singer there was."

Horn brought a richly layered storytelling quality to everything she sang.

"She can swing, but slow songs are her specialty," Marian McPartland, the pianist and host of the NPR program "Piano Jazz," told The Times some years ago. "She makes everything count, and has an uncanny use of musical space -- she's not a busy player who has to fill every musical hole. She plays a single chord, and it becomes the basis for a spare, meditative quality. There's a sensuous, sexy quality to her music too."

Jazz critic Nat Hentoff said Friday that Horn was a favorite of her peers.

"Very few singers in my experience have been so admired by musicians," Hentoff said.

Born and raised in Washington, Horn was one of three children. Her father worked for the government and later drove a cab part time to help pay for her musical studies.

Her grandmother had a pipe organ and a piano in the parlor of her home. Years later, Horn recalled that she couldn't wait to get into that parlor.

"I had my first lesson when I was 4," she told The Times. "All I can remember is just wanting to play the piano. I didn't do the normal things teenagers do. All I wanted was music. I wanted it with a passion."

After years of private lessons, Horn studied music at Howard University's School for Gifted Children from ages 12 to 18. She was a devotee of Rachmaninoff and Debussy but also favored jazz greats Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson. She switched to jazz when she was 17 and won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York City but had to decline for financial reasons. She went instead to Howard.

At 21, she married Shepherd Deering, an employee of Washington's Metropolitan Transit Agency. Her husband and their daughter, Rainy, survive her, as do several grandchildren.

In 1954, Horn put together her first trio and recorded three albums. But to avoid the rigors of the road and be at home with her daughter, she generally confined her performances to the Washington and Baltimore areas.

Her first album, "Embers and Ashes," recorded in 1961 on a small label called Stereo-Craft, caught the attention of trumpeter Miles Davis, who insisted that she come to New York City and open for him at the Village Vanguard. Davis' shows drew a diverse crowd, and the exposure did much to help Horn's career.

Quincy Jones, who caught one of the Vanguard shows, became an admirer of her music and produced two of her albums, "Loads of Love" (Mercury, 1963) and "Shirley Horn With Horns" (Mercury, 1963). After leaving Mercury, she recorded a number of albums for Steeplechase, a Danish label.

Horn was in her early 50s when her career took an upswing after she signed with Verve in 1986. Her first album for the label, "I Thought About You," was a live set recorded at the Vine Street Bar and Grill in Hollywood.

Mandel said he was blown away when he first heard her on the radio in his car.

"I stopped the car and I said, 'Who ... is that? When I found out that was Shirley, I said, 'Oh, boy, look what I've been missing.' I went out and bought every one of her records."

He said Friday that working with her was a joy.

"She was also a better pianist than most people knew," Mandel said. "She would play her piano, and I knew just what to do with an orchestra behind her. I knew exactly what she wanted, and we had few conversations about music. We were soul mates...."

Mandel paired Horn with a string section and orchestra for the first time on 1991's "Here's to Life," which stayed on the Billboard jazz chart for 15 weeks.

"You have to be very careful with someone like her," Mandel said after the album's release. "She works a small emotional gamut. But she's the best living interpreter of songs I know. She's got the best taste and a delicious voice, full of wonder."

Horn released 14 albums for Verve and was nominated for eight Grammy Awards. In 1988, she won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for her tribute recording to Davis, "I Remember Miles."

Other honors included a 2003 Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence. She was also named a 2005 NEA Jazz Master, the nation's highest honor for jazz composers and musicians.

In 2004 she was honored at the Kennedy Center with an all-star concert.

"Jazz is feeling," Horn once told The Times. "It's fire and ice. I want the people in the audience to feel and see the picture I'm trying to paint. I want to be in touch with you and get inside of you."

Even though the diabetes claimed much of her leg and she was unable to play the piano, Horn continued singing from a wheelchair.

Of an engagement in Los Angeles at Feinstein's at the Cinegrill in February 2004, critic Don Heckman wrote that she made the transition from the piano bench to the wheelchair "with grace and ease."

"Her cognac-smooth voice was as marvelous as ever; her capacity to deliver lyrics in utterly believable fashion remains one of the marvels of the vocal world, whatever the genre," Heckman said.

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