Many people who were unfamiliar with Howard University—a premier Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Washington, D.C.—are more aware of it these days, due to the election of Vice President Kamala Harris, who graduated from HU in 1986. Her election enhanced the profiles of all HBCUs, and she and President Joe Biden have called for “greater equity in HBCU funding.” Madame VP Harris has also drawn attention to the amazing HBCU marching bands.
I attended Howard, and both of my parents were HBCU graduates, along with many other members of my family. This #BlackMusicSunday, join me in some musical appreciation of Howard sounds. Since the theme for this year’s National Museum of American History’s “Jazz Appreciation Month” is “Women in Jazz,” I want to highlight the careers of three Howard musical luminaries this month: Shirley Horn, Geri Allen, and Roberta Flack.
Let’s start with the 2005 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, Ms. Shirley Horn.
Before diving into the music, I want to applaud the contributions of a few other notable HU Bison. From the time of its founding in 1867, Howard’s students, graduates, and faculty have contributed to our nation’s judicial system (Thurgood Marshall), sciences (E. Franklin Frazier), politics (Ralph Bunche, Edward Brooke, David Dinkins, Elijah Cummings, Andrew Young, and Douglas Wilder) literature (Paul Laurence Dunbar, Zora Neale Hurston, Amiri Baraka, Toni Morrison, and Ta-Nehisi Coates), and the visual and performing arts (Ossie Davis, Billy Eckstine, Elizabeth Catlett, Lois Mailou Jones, Donald Byrd, Jessye Norman, Donny Hathaway, Debbie Allen and her sister Phylicia Rashad, Sean “Puffy” Combs, Chadwick Boseman).
For those of you who may have never had the chance to hear or see Shirley Horn live, count yourselves as unlucky. I will do my best to correct that today.
* * *
Shirley Horn was born in Washington, D.C., on May 1, 1934. Washington was already a jazz town and cultural mecca you can read about and experience, courtesy of Black Broadway on U.
In an interview with Jazz Times, Horn talked with Lara Pellegrinelli about her early musical beginnings, which found her studying at Howard University as a tween.
You know, music is my life. Without it, I would perish. The first thing I remember in my life is being about three years old, almost four, going to my grandmother’s parlor and playing this big old piano … She played piano and organ, by ear … Mama [her grandmother] played hymns in church. She was a really short thing and it was hard for her to reach the pedals on the organ. After I got married, whenever I had a party with my friends, she’d come over and play the piano at the party. All my musician friends loved her. She was a dear lady.
“And she told my mother to give me piano lessons. I was only four years old—I couldn’t read or write—but this man took me: Mr. Fletcher, I even remember his name. Maybe he’s still living? Well, he took me as far as he could. But by the time I was about 11 years old, my uncle, who was a very rich doctor here in town, went to Howard University and started the junior school of music because there were no teachers left who could teach me anything. I went to school and then I went to Howard University every day. It wasn’t anything like it is now. I had to get on the streetcar and go up to the university to this old house. They had a building, a special building that had the Steinway piano.”
She talks quietly, pausing here and there to keep the facts straight. “The teacher I remember there most is Dr. Frances Hughes,” she goes on after a minute of thought. “I’ll never forget her. I was afraid of her at first, but I respected her because she was a positive teacher. You know what I mean? She started me right off with Chopin. Didn’t give me any little dingle-ingle-ingle stuff. And I loved it.”
That love of music would earn Horn a scholarship to the Julliard School in New York—a scholarship she didn’t take because of the cost, as well as her mother’s concern about her going too far from home. So instead she went to Howard University, where she shifted from classical music to an interest in jazz. By the time she was 20, she had formed her own jazz trio.
Her debut album was Embers and Ashes, released in 1961. Here she is, effortlessly singing "I Thought About You," a 1939 song composed by Jimmy Van Heusen, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.
Embers and Ashes would lead to a life-changing event for Horn, as Rashod D. Ollison wrote for the Baltimore Sun.
Newly married at the time to (Shep) Deering, a dark-eyed, handsome man she met at D.C.'s Atlas Theatre, Horn was visiting her mother-in-law in Virginia when she received a strange call.
"We were in Danville somewhere out on my mother-in-law's farm," Horn recalls. "The phone rang and it was for me. I didn't know who it was. I said, 'Hello.'" Imitating Davis' raspy voice, she continues: "'Shirley? This is Miles Davis. I got some folks I want you to meet in New York.' I said, 'Who is this?' I thought it was a joke."
Horn mulled over the invitation for a day or so before she went to Davis' home in New York, where she found his children singing the songs on Embers and Ashes. King of New York's jazz scene at the time, Davis had arranged for Horn to share the bill with him at the Village Vanguard, a respected venue in Greenwich Village. It was a prestigious gig for a newcomer like Horn. The club owner, Max Gordon, didn't even know who she was.
"Miles insisted that I play on the bill," Horn says. "If I didn't play, he wasn't gonna play, either."
Give a listen to that young Horn, live in 1961; the album was initially mislabeled and released as Shirley Horn Live at the Village Vanguard, though it was actually recorded at the Gaslight Square in St. Louis. It was was later re-released with the proper title. From that album, here’s Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale.”
But, as Andrew Gilbert wrote in February, three decades would pass before the album that changed the course of Horn’s career.
Shirley Horn was barely a cult figure the first time I saw her perform May 8, 1989, at her Kuumbwa Jazz Center debut. The experience was transformative, and even as a relative newcomer I knew that Horn was an artist of the highest order. It wasn’t just the way that her ballads seemed to defy the flow of time, each beat suspended on her drummer’s feathery brush strokes. Or her telegraphic piano work, which enfolded her burnished, coppery vocals with piquantly ringing harmonies. Horn remade each song in that Santa Cruz performance with her inimitable sound, a bracing blend of vulnerability, aching sensuality, and imperious command.
The mystery was why, in her mid-50s, she’d yet to break through. Horn had released a handful of albums in the first half of the 1960s, then spent almost a decade without recording and rarely performing outside of Washington, D.C., while raising her daughter. Releasing four excellent albums for the respected Danish label Steeplechase from 1979-85 didn’t do much to raise her profile in the U.S., but Horn, who died in 2005 at the age of 71, wasn’t destined for obscurity.
Richard Seidel signed her to Verve in 1987 as part of the vaunted label’s revitalization, and after a couple of well-received albums they hit upon an ideal recipe to showcase Horn’s singular talent. With a bevy of guest artists, including longtime fans Toots Thielemans and Miles Davis, Horn’s prophetically titled album “You Won’t Forget Me” came out 30 years ago on Feb. 12, 1991, transforming her from a hidden treasure into one of jazz’s biggest stars.
Here’s the remarkable title track from You Won’t Forget Me.
Davis died seven months after its release.
Following the success of You Won’t Forget Me, Horn then recorded Here’s to Life.
The title track offers the sort of optimism we can use right now.
Horn’s crowning career achievement took place in 1998.
From her 1998 GRAMMY award-winning album, I Remember Miles, here she is with “Blue and Green.”
Horn died on Oct. 20, 2005, and music critic Ben Ratliff wrote her New York Times obituary.
Shirley Horn, a jazz singer and pianist who drew audiences close with a powerfully confidential, vibratoless delivery, died yesterday at a nursing home in Cheverly, Md. She was 71.
Ms. Horn was a unique singer, with one of the slowest deliveries in jazz and a very unusual way of phrasing, putting stress on certain words and letting others slip away. She cherished her repertory, making audiences feel that she was cutting through to the stark truths of songs like "Here's to Life" and "You Won't Forget Me." She wanted things just so: she stuck with her drummer, Steve Williams, for 23 years, and her bassist, Charles Ables -- who died in 2002 -- for 33.
She lived all her life in and around Washington, often performing close to home to be near her family. But over the last two decades she enjoyed a quietly expanding revival of the concert and club career she had begun in the 1950's, and she became a star in the jazz world.
In 2016—over a decade after her death—Downbeat announced a new Horn release.
Live At The 4 Queens was recorded about a year after Horn’s milestone 1987 album I Thought About You (Verve), which was viewed as the “comeback” record that reignited her international touring career after a nearly 20-year hiatus—during which she focused primarily on raising her daughter in her hometown of Washington, D.C.
The album includes a 56-page book documenting Horn’s life and career, featuring interviews conducted by Resonance Records producer Zev Feldman, who topped the Rising Star—Producer category of the 2016 DownBeat Critics Poll. Additional essays were contributed by journalist James Gavin, producers Jean-Philippe Allard and Richard Seidel, longtime Horn drummer Steve Williams, singer Sheila Jordan, jazz radio veteran Rusty Hassan, KNPR engineer Brian Sanders, manager Sheila Mathis and Horn’s daughter, Rainy Smith.
With nine tracks and more than 50 minutes of music, Live At The 4 Queens features Horn’s interpretations of popular songs, including “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To,” “The Boy From Ipanema” (Horn’s spin on the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic), “Isn’t It Romantic?,” “Lover Man” and others.
Zev Feldman, talks about his journey producing the album in the following mini-doc.
I’ll close with one of my favorite Horn performances, live in São Paulo, Brazil, in 1999.
Stay tuned for more music from Howard’s talented piano and vocals ladies next Sunday, and join me in the comments for even more Shirley Horn.