The life and music of Washington, DC jazz singer and pianist Shirley Horn was the featured topic at Westminster Church’s Thinking About Jazz event on Oct. 25 from 1-3:00 pm. A panel including Horn’s daughter Rainy Smith, jazz singers Jessica Boykin Settles and Jeannie Marshall, and Westminster’s Jazz Night Program Director, Dick Smith, shared remembrances of her life and musicianship.

Shirley Valerie Horn was born May 1, 1934 in Washington, DC to parents who loved music and sang to each other throughout their lives. As a toddler Shirley began playing on her grandmother’s piano and was given music lessons. Offered a scholarship in her teens to Juilliard, the family decided they could not afford to send her to New York, so she enrolled in the Junior Music School at DC’s Howard University where she studied classical piano and became particularly fond of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Claude Debussy.

When she fell in love with jazz she said, “I loved Rachmaninoff but then Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninoff. And Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy.”

Singing entered her life when at 17, playing classical piano at a DC restaurant, a man came into the restaurant with a teddy bear and offered to give it to her if she would sing “Melancholy Baby,” and so began her career as a vocalist. She booked gigs up and down the East Coast from DC to Manhattan.

In 1960 when Miles Davis heard her first recording, Embers and Ashes, he tracked her down in DC and asked her to open for him at NY’s Village Vanguard. Davis was a mentor and friend to Horn until he died in 1991, in part because he thought her style of singing was much like the way he played trumpet – using long silences between notes and phrases known as creating “space.”

Shirley Horn’s career included recordings, movies, and personal appearances. She was known to never compromise her music or her personal life in the pursuit of fame. After the birth of her daughter Rainy, she confined her appearances to DC and Baltimore and no amount of encouragement would persuade her to spend long periods of time away from Rainy or her husband, Sheppard Deering. In 1986, she accepted a gig at Michael’s Pub in Manhattan and went on to have an international career.

During her long career, Horn recorded for Verve and Mercury records and, from 1954 on, had her own trio including drummer Steve Williams, with whom she played for 23 years, and pianist Charles Able, with whom she played for 33 years. She recorded for producer Quincy Jones and, in addition to Miles Davis, played with Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielmans, Ron Carter, Wynton Marsalis, and Carmen McCrae. Horn fulfilled a life-long ambition with her final recording, Here’s to Life, with Johnny Mandel as her arranger and producer.

The panel took up the question of the impact of her decision to stay in the DC area after she married and had a child.

By: Brian Hamilton

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