Shirley Horn

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‘With the passing of Shirley Horn, who was born in 1934, an era ended. She was the last in line of jazz’s great female vocalists from its Golden Era’, says Stuart Nicholson. In a previously unpublished interview he made with her in Paris he pays tribute to Shirley Horn and looks back on her career and recorded legacy.
Shirley Horn reached for her glass of brandy, took a large draft and closed her eyes. She remained in private contemplation for what seemed an age, but it was probably only seconds.
She turned slowly and looked at me quizzically: "Does my smoking bother you?" she asked. It didn’t and I told her so. Ninety minutes earlier she had completed a two hour set in a small but expensive Paris nightclub. She had held the audience spellbound.
It was 1993 and she was at the peak of a career renaissance. A supreme jazz stylist whose bottle-of-brandy-and-twenty-Gitanes voice got to the very essence of the lyrics she sang, she often riskily stretched phrases to breaking point. Unafraid to slow songs to a snail’s pace, she was a master of the slow, intimate ballad, filling them with tensions and elegant spaces filled only by the resonant lingering of the last chord she played. Her set had been a masterclass from one the all-time greats of the jazz vocal art.
Now she was trying to relax while giving interviews for her album Light Out of Darkness, about to be released in Europe. It was 3.30am, "my time of day," as she put it. One by one the journalists completed their tasks and melted away into the night. Now it was my turn.
I offered to buy her another brandy. She smiled and nodded, finishing off her large glass in three slow gulps. A fresh glass was brought to the table. In person, she was soft-spoken, elegant and dignified, using silence and understatement to make her points in much the same way as she did in her music. "I don’t think there’s a category for me," she reflected. "I like to be referred to as a good singer of good songs in good taste."
Two years previously I had seen her at the North Sea Jazz Festival, where she had seemed distracted and anxious. We talked about this and I asked her if she preferred the more intimate night club setting. "It depends on what the situation is. They had me in the Van Gogh Zaal [in North Sea], it was all lit up like a McDonalds or something! I couldn’t get into the music, what I was doing needed a different ‘housing.’ But when I played at the Theatre du Chatelet [in Paris] it was so wonderful, the audience was with me, they were so quiet. There were more than 3,000 people at the concert. They were engrossed. So yes, atmosphere does have a bearing on my performance; how do I perform with the lights bright? I work to get the story over, I’m trying to paint a picture. It’s hard, it’s like making love in the kitchen!"
Horn’s was an intimate art, and although it could translate to the larger stage, the nightclub was where she was at her best. It was where she learned her craft in the 1950s, where as a teenager she attracted a small following playing piano in Washington D.C’s cocktail lounges. There she had incorporated singing into her act to earn more money and by 1959 she had made her debut on record playing piano and singing on a Stuff Smith date. Meanwhile she was fronting her own small band in Olivia’s Patio Lounge, the Bohemian Caverns and other jazz clubs in Washington’s U Street district where she learned the technique of drawing audiences into her songs, something that younger generations of singers have learned from, such as Diana Krall.
She was a master of the less-is-more ethic, not only in her singing but also in her movements and gestures and in the way she spoke to audiences. Maybe this was what attracted Miles Davis to her style when she released her first album Ember and Ashes on the Stere-o-Craft label in 1961. Davis called her at her Washington home the following year and asked her to open for him at the Village Vanguard in New York. "I thought it was someone messin,’ but I wasn’t sure," she recalled. When she arrived in Manhattan she discovered the Davis band in transition, Davis spending more time offstage than on it, wandering on to the bandstand for his brief solo spots. "One night I was playing ‘My Funny Valentine’ and Miles started playing from behind a pillar. But he wouldn’t come up on stage," she recalled.