Jazzmeia Horn: Social Grace

Inspired by Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter, rising vocal star Jazzmeia Horn sings for peace

Jazzmeia Horn (photo by Jacob Blickenstaff/Concord Music Group)

Could a singer who draws inspiration from legendary sax and trumpet players possibly be blessed with a better name than Jazzmeia Horn? The 26-year-old Dallas native, a graduate of Manhattan’s New School, is indeed blessed—not only with remarkable vocal skills but also sharp intelligence, an impressive sense of self and deep wells of creative curiosity. She is the first artist to win top honors at both the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Competition, where her prize included an album deal with Concord. The resultant debut disc, the standards-focused A Social Call, has earned her global accolades, drawing comparisons to the tsunamic impacts of Gregory Porter and Cécile McLorin Salvant. CHRISTOPHER LOUDON

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JazzTimes: What was your path to jazz?

Jazzmeia Horn: I started singing in church when I was 3. My parents realized they needed to do something to sustain me musically, [and] my mother made sure I was in choir and musical theatre. We couldn’t afford voice lessons, so she made sure I was involved with anything going on musically. [At Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts], I had a teacher, Roger Boykin, who is still a mentor, and he said, “OK, your name is Jazzmeia; you should definitely get involved in jazz combos and jazz ensembles.” He had me sing “Summertime” and other classic jazz tunes. But it wasn’t until I heard Sarah Vaughan that everything clicked for me. Her phrasing, her scatting—everything made me feel like I could be more of myself, and brought parts of me out that I’d never experienced as a musician.

Later, Betty Carter proved an even bigger influence.

What really speaks to me is the fire she has, the way she presents the story to you. She’s like the blue flame: You don’t even know you’re burnt until it’s too late! And you don’t have any choice but to feel it. When I discovered Betty my whole life changed, and I was so grateful to have an understanding of who she was, what she stood for and what she gave to the music.

Instrumentalists have also affected you significantly.

I really love Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown, Ahmad Jamal, and John and Alice Coltrane, who I look at as the emperor and empress of this music: the way they faced society and the way they faced their music head-on, and how they lived their lives peacefully, and what they practiced spiritually. I honor them and look up to them in so many ways. They inspired me to become a better me.

The response to A Social Call has been incredible.

It’s a bit overwhelming. I feel a big weight on my shoulders. The elder generation that loves this music is looking to me for hope; and the youth, I didn’t think they’d dig straight-ahead jazz. So I’m surprised but grateful, because it’s like bridging two generations that I’m right in the middle of. … It really shows me that I’m walking in my divine purpose, and it gives me hope that there can be positive music out there. What’s out in the mainstream is not really bringing us peace, and that’s what I’m reaching toward with my music—peace, love and joy.

On the album, your blending of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” with “Moanin’” is inspired.

I have a friend, Marcus Miller—not the bassist; he plays tenor saxophone. We were teaching at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and had a festival coming up to celebrate Dr. King and the Emancipation Proclamation and Freedom Day in South Africa and [Emancipation] Day in Jamaica—a bunch of African

people coming together to celebrate freedom. He thought of this arrangement and that it would be good for that day. I told him I wanted to use it, because I thought [a wider audience] needed to hear it. Jimmy Owens and Billy Harper and Reggie Workman and Charles Tolliver have all contacted me about this arrangement. It’s healing for me to have somebody like Reggie call me in tears, saying [he’s] really proud of me and inspired. That’s a blessing, and I’m so humbled.

The closing track incorporates your poetry. Is crafting original material a goal?

I probably have 25 to 30 songs I’ve written, and most of the next album is going to be my original pieces. I wanted to start with standards so that people could hear how I phrase and how I sound. The plan was to introduce myself, and then we can pull out the original material.

You’re still riding high with A Social Call, but what’s on the horizon?

I’m just learning my audience, and my gift and my role in the universe and where my music fits in. That’s what’s good about my next tour: I get to listen to the people and how they appreciate the music or don’t appreciate the music. That’s what’s next for me.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album Social Call by Jazzmeia Horn on iTunes.