Jazz Singer Shirley Horn Dead at 71

Categories: Obituary

Jazz singer Shirley Horn died last night after a long illness. She was 71. Here is a review I wrote for the now defunct Request Magazine about Horn's 2001 disc, "You're My Thrill."

Some singers age like fine wine, but it seems as if 66-year old Shirley Horn has always been more like a good whiskey, distilled instead of fermented, with a slow, penetrating style imbued with a dry, smoky tang. Her phrases, like those of one of her early boosters, trumpeter Miles Davis, are full of graceful restraint and beautiful shadows, like sonic feng shui. Accompanying herself on piano, backed by the rhythm section that has been with her for more than a decade and some understated orchestration arranged by Johnny Mandel, Horn illuminates familiar ballads like "You're My Thrill" and "The Very Thought of You" with distinctive, understated wisdom. A particular highlight is Mandel's "Solitary Moon," a mature valentine that luxuriates in the quiet satisfaction of romance. There are wry interludes too--guest Russell Malone's sprightly guitar underscores the plaint of "Why Don't You Do Right?"--but most of You're My Thrill reinforces Horn's gift for articulating the ambiance of love during those moments when words are unnecessary.

And here is the press release about her passing from her current record company, Verve.

The Verve Music Group is saddened to announce the passing of Shirley
Horn, the legendary pianist and vocalist. Horn died last night in her
hometown of Washington, D.C. after a lengthy illness. She was 71 years old.

Ron Goldstein, President & CEO of the Verve Music Group, comments
"Shirley Horn was a true innovator. She created a unique style of
playing and singing that was not only original, but so penetrating and
so much her own that few dared try to copy it. She was also a great
character and I will miss all of my conversations with her, which were
delivered in the same deadpan, ironic style that we all knew and loved
from her performances. Her passing is a great loss to Verve, to Jazz,
and to the world."

Born on May 1, 1934, Horn began to play the piano at age four. After
majoring in music at Howard University, Horn put together her first trio in 1954. Miles Davis invited her to open for him at the Village Vanguard in 1960, an engagement which led to a recording contract with Mercury Records and a life-long friendship with Davis. Quincy Jones became an admirer and mentor of Horn's during this period, and produced two of her albums: Loads Of Love (Mercury, 1963) and Shirley Horn with Horns (Mercury, 1963). After parting ways with the label over creative differences, she recorded a number of albums for the Danish Steeplechase label which cemented her reputation as a singular talent. Horn was a devoted wife and mother, so much so that she eschewed touring for many years and instead chose to perform primarily in clubs around the D.C. and Baltimore area.

In 1986, she signed with Verve and made a series of critically-acclaimed albums which significantly raised her profile and exposed her to a new generation of jazz fans. During her tenure with Verve, she released fourteen albums and was honored with eight Grammy nominations. She was elected to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Hall of Fame in in 1996, and in 1998, she won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for her tribute to Miles Davis, I Remember Miles. In 1999, she received the Phineas Newborn, Jr. Award, along with a tribute concert in her honor. Other honors include a 2003 Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence, an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music and inclusion in ASCAP's Wall of Fame as the 2005 Living Legend. In late 2004, Horn was honored at the Kennedy Center with an all-star tribute concert and was named 2005 NEA Jazz Master, the nation's highest honor for jazz musicians.

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