A Musical Interlude: Shirley Horn

Jazz weather returns

I’d like to preface this post by saying I get that jazz music is kind of niche these days. It’s either seen as impenetrable or dusty by too many people, and outside of a few big names (Miles Davis, John Coletrane, Dave Brubeck, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, etc), it’s all a mystery. And I can understand that. I grew up listening to at least a little bit of jazz. Mostly Brubeck or Oscar Peterson from my dad’s collection and big band stuff because I got the itch in jr. high and got really into Glen Miller for a year or two. But when I wanted to expand my focus and learn more about the music as I got older, the range of artists and styles, almost a century worth of it, was daunting.

The only advice my dad had wasn’t all that useful either. He had a few names as starting points, but not much more.

Developing an affinity for jazz is not an easy thing. It’s can be like learning a language. But at least now in the age of streaming and algorithms it can be easier to dial in a feeling for the kind of stuff you might like as long as you can find one good place to start. Just tell your music service of choice, “Hey! I like this. What else you got like this?” Then start curating. It won’t take long to discover there’s a whole world of music that you might even love that you’ve never heard before.

By the time my dad died in 2004, I hadn’t even discovered my deep love for Bill Evans, arguably one of the most influential and iconic jazz pianists of all time. I just hadn’t gotten to him yet! So while I’m sad that I never got to talk Bill Evans with my dad, it wasn’t until just a few years ago that I discovered what has proven to be one of my favorite jazz interpretations of all time.

That brings us to Shirley Horn.

Born 35 years before me to the day (a fact I literally did not know until two minutes ago), Shirley Horn was an incomperable singer/pianist who played with some of the greatest names in jazz. She studied piano and composition at Howard University starting at the age of 12 and was offered a place at Julliard though her parents could not afford to send here there. Instead, she formed her own jazz trio at age 20 and started performing.

Her debut album Embers and Ashes in 1960 earned her rare public praise from icon Miles Davis and invitation to play intermission sets at his stint at the Village Vanguard. She was signed to Mercury Records by Quincy Jones two years later. But the label kept trying to turn her into a pop singer, focusing on her vocals and not even letting her play the piano. And by the end of the sixties, she had largely retired from music, playing only locally.

It wasn’t until Danish record label SteepleChase Records tracked her down in 1978 and encouraged her to record with a new trio rounded out by Billy Hart and Buster Williams that she had a career resurgance. She ended up doing four albums for SteepleChase in a six year period, and then another album for CBS-Sony for the Japanese market in 1986.

I’d also like to point out that until the last few years, I didn’t have any idea how big jazz was and continues to be in Japan. I’ll have to share some Japanese musicians in a later post because there’s some incredible stuff out there.

She continued to perform and record for several more years after that, with three albums reaching the top spot on the Billboard jazz charts, before dying from complications of diabetes at the age of 71 in 2005.

Despite all this, despite nine Grammy nominations and one win, I had somehow never heard of her unti a few years ago. Maybe it was because of her career trajectory and when she was recording. Maybe it was because she was a woman and took time off to be a wife and mother instead of devoting herself entirely to her career. I don’t have answers. I just know it’s sad it took me so long to find her by, of all things, stumbling upon this performance on Youtube.

Watch the master at work

Copied from VHS with all of the tape hiss you would expect, I bore witness to a solid twelve minutes of absolute perfection. Recorded at the Heinekin Concert in São Paulo in 1999, this is the only version of her playing the Antônio Carlos Jobim classic “How Insensitive” that I’ve been able to find anywhere.

If you’re familiar with “How Insensitive” at all, you might recognize it as peppy bossa nova standard that has been recorded numerous times. Even Iggy Pop and William Shatner have taken a whack at it. The original is also under three minutes in length.

What Shirley Horn does with her interpretation is nothing short of magical. The kind of magic that keeps me coming back to jazz as a musical genre time and time again. She doesn’t rush it. She pares it back with a simple trio and takes her time taking it apart. And then she opens it up in the middle and explodes it outward in a pure expression of love and joy, exploring all the potential of the otherwise simple melody.

I could listen to it on repeat for hours and never get tired of watching her go to work. It’s like a musical autopsy that holds me spellbound.

All this to say, don’t be afraid of jazz. Don’t be afraid of exploring new or especially old music regardless of genre. Stay curious and keep an open mind and heart. You may even surprise yourself.

And definitely give Shirley Horn a listen.

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