Shirley Horn, the Grammy-winning jazz vocalist and pianist known for her intimate, whispery vocals and top-drawer piano playing, died yesterday (Oct. 20) at Gladys Spellman Nursing Home in Cheverly, Md., following an extended battle with diabetes. She was 71.
Always respected critically, Horn became an unlikely star in her 60s with a series of luminous albums for Verve Records throughout the 1990s. Accompanying herself at the piano, Horn and her trademark vocal style also became a major influence on younger jazz singer/pianists such as Diana Krall and Norah Jones.
Horn was nominated for nine Grammys in the last decade. She won the best jazz vocal performance award in 1998 for her album “I Remember Miles,” dedicated to her good friend and mentor Miles Davis.
On several of her Verve albums, she worked with top arranger Johnny Mandel. On others she augmented her trio with guest artists like Davis, Wynton and Bradford Marsalis, Gary Bartz and Toots Thielmanns.
Horn began playing piano at age 10. At 18, she was awarded a music scholarship to Juilliard, but financial difficulties kept her in D.C. After studying music at Howard University, she began her career in the late ’50s as a pianist in local restaurants and nightclubs and eased into her role as a vocalist. She was a headliner at Washington’s now-defunct One Step Down for more than 20 years.
In 1960, Davis coaxed Horn to open for him at New York’s Village Vanguard after being captivated by her debut recording, “Embers and Ashes.” That engagement led to a contract with Mercury Records, where she cut albums with Quincy Jones and other top arrangers. She also sang on the 1968 movie soundtracks of “For Love Of Ivy” and “A Dandy in Aspic.”
Despite critical acclaim, Horn rarely toured, instead remaining in D.C. to raise her daughter. When Verve signed her in 1987, she was ready to expand her horizons. For her 1996 album “Main Ingredient” she convinced the brass at Verve to record her at her home in the nation’s capitol. It was a casual affair.
As jazz royalty like drummer Elvin Jones and tenorman Joe Henderson and others arrived from New York at midday, Horn, brandy snifter in hand, invited them into her kitchen, which was packed with friends and food. As Jones said at the time, “When I wasn’t playing, I was busy eating Shirley’s beef and beer stew.”
Horn previously told Billboard of the session, “I wanted it to be like the old days when folks would get off work at two or three, drop by my place, and play till dawn. Good company, good food, good music.”
Horn cut back but did not stop touring in recent years due to her diabetic condition, which eventually resulted in the amputation of a foot. She is survived by her husband, a daughter and two grandsons.