"I built this room for that Steinway Grand D, that big one there."
Miles Davis was a big fan of Shirley Horn (1934–2005) as both a singer and a pianist. Beguiled by her less-is-more sense of space and patience on her 1960 debut album, Embers and Ashes, the trumpeter insisted that she open for him at the Village Vanguard, telling the management: “If she don’t play, I ain’t gonna play.” Three decades later, Davis paid her the high compliment of making a rare latter-day appearance as a sideman for her, lacing his horn around Horn on the title track of her 1991 Verve LP You Won’t Forget Me. Repaying his devotion, she recorded an album in tribute to the late Davis, I Remember Miles, which earned her a Grammy Award in 1999. Devotion was an important trait for Horn. She employed the same drummer, Steve Williams, for 23 years and the same bassist, Charles Ables, for 33. Horn also remained devoted to her roots in Washington, D.C. Born there in 1934, she eschewed a Juilliard School scholarship in favor of Howard University close to home, making her mother happy; instead of heading to the jazz capital of New York City later in pursuit of the big time, she stayed around D.C. to keep close to her siblings and raise her daughter. This sense of devotion extended to her way with songs, as she explored phrases for all their resonance, digging especially deep into ballads. In his New York Times obituary after Horn’s death in 2005, critic Ben Ratliff extolled her way of “drawing audiences close with a powerfully confidential, vibrato-less delivery,” adding: “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’.” As a pianist, Horn studied classical music at first, but once she discovered jazz, “Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninoff,” she said, “and [steinway artist] Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy.”
When producer Quincy Jones brought Horn to Mercury Records in the early 1960s, the label wanted to spotlight her solely as a vocalist. “They wanted to turn me into a stand-up singer! But I couldn’t get away from that piano,” she recalled for JazzTimes. “I couldn’t handle anyone playing for me… I’m my best accompanist. I always know where I’m going.” Critic Marc Myers has pointed out “her uncanny ability to accompany herself on piano as if two different people were in the studio… Horn was a jazz pianist, first and foremost. It’s hard to think of another female jazz vocalist who could play piano this well and powerfully.” Her influence on such latter-day jazz pianist–vocalists, including steinway artist Diana Krall is notable. Singling out Horn’s mid-period recordings for the Steeplechase label, Guardian critic John Fordham said: “With A Lazy Afternoon in particular, she demonstrated her remarkable handling of the slow-burn, but also a spare and subtle swing, improvising imagination and a crucial interdependence of her piano playing and singing.” By the time she began recording her string of high-profile albums for Verve in the 1980s, such stars as Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis and Toots Thielemans began playing on her sessions. These were albums in which Horn suspended time, challenging listeners but enthralling those who stayed with her. “Space is a valuable commodity in music,” she told Culturekiosque. “Too many musicians rush through everything with too many notes. I need time to take the picture. A ballad should be a ballad. It’s important to understand what the song is saying, and learn how to tell the story. It takes time. I can’t rush it — I really can’t rush it.” — Bradley Bambarger