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Shirley Horn: Around the Horn with Shirley

Shirley Horn
Shirley Horn (photo: Larry Busacca)
Shirley Horn
Shirley Horn (photo: Jimmy Katz)

Aside from a boat-sized Cadillac moored in the driveway, the white stucco house in northeast Washington, D.C., betrays few signs of its occupants. No lights shine, inside or out. Metal bars guard first-story windows with heavy curtains drawn beneath. Grating protects a locked front door. All is quiet, the narrow street deserted on this chilly winter evening, and even the doorbell cannot be heard from the porch outside. It is impossible to tell if anyone is home.

Only after minutes pass does someone answer the door, a lanky older man with tousled gray hair. “She’s in there,” he offers gruffly, pointing back and over his shoulder. “Shirley!”

Noise from a distant television leads to the back of the sprawling house and the kitchen, where Shirley Horn sits looking at sitcoms across a boxy wooden table. “Hello,” she smiles, shifting her focus just slightly. An old scarf covers her hair, save a single curl in the middle of her forehead. Her housecoat hangs open, with several safety pins dangling from uncooperative snaps. Tiny pink rosebuds cover new white gardening gloves worn on both hands. Her lipstick is flawless.

She made some pleasant small talk about her comings and goings, but dropped in a comment meant to deter frivolous inquiries. “You know, you’ve got all the stories,” she purrs hopefully. “Do I have to go back to when I was born?”

Clearly, no is the right answer. And, to be honest, the basic outline of Horn’s career has been told and retold, beginning with her “discovery” by Miles Davis in 1960. As if on cue, Horn growls in imitation of Davis’s harsh whisper: “If she don’t play, I ain’t gonna play,” she repeats, a gleam in her eyes. Evidently Davis had been so taken with Horn’s first album, Embers and Ashes, that he refused to work at the Village Vanguard without her. When faced with this ballsy tactic, club owner Max Gordon conceded and hired her to open for him.

Another celebrated anecdote relates why the young Horn, a classically trained pianist, started singing in the first place. “It was getting close to Christmas and he sent a note up there,” she recalls, describing a polite gentleman customer. He frequented the Merryland Supper Club where she played light classical pieces after school. “He said, ‘If you sing “Melancholy Baby,” this teddy bear is yours.’ Child, I sang two choruses.”

Such familiar standbys may represent pivotal moments in her career, yet precious few articles have probed deeper questions or deviated from basic reportage on her recent activities. Fewer still present Horn in her own words at length, the voice only familiar to audiences in song. She says she doesn’t like to talk about herself—perhaps preempting less than wholehearted attempts to garner her stories—nor does she particularly care for the day-to-day business surrounding and promoting her work, like the new You’re My Thrill! (Verve).

“It’s always something,” she sighs with discontent. “The new record’s coming out and there’s a whole lot of stuff to do with that. Interviews. Photographs. That’s the hard part. But I’d never give it up. I couldn’t. I’m driven. You know, music is my life. Without it, I would perish. The first thing I remember in my life is being about three years old, almost four, going to my grandmother’s parlor and playing this big old piano.”

Finally, an opening had presented itself for a seemingly innocent question: “Your grandmother played piano?”

“She played piano and organ, by ear,” Horn replies. “Mama [her grandmother] played hymns in church. She was a really short thing and it was hard for her to reach the pedals on the organ. After I got married, whenever I had a party with my friends, she’d come over and play the piano at the party. All my musician friends loved her. She was a dear lady.

“And she told my mother to give me piano lessons. I was only four years old—I couldn’t read or write—but this man took me: Mr. Fletcher, I even remember his name. Maybe he’s still living? Well, he took me as far as he could. But by the time I was about 11 years old, my uncle, who was a very rich doctor here in town, went to Howard University and started the junior school of music because there were no teachers left who could teach me anything. I went to school and then I went to Howard University every day. It wasn’t anything like it is now. I had to get on the streetcar and go up to the university to this old house. They had a building, a special building that had the Steinway piano.”

She talks quietly, pausing here and there to keep the facts straight. “The teacher I remember there most is Dr. Frances Hughes,” she goes on after a minute of thought. “I’ll never forget her. I was afraid of her at first, but I respected her because she was a positive teacher. You know what I mean? She started me right off with Chopin. Didn’t give me any little dingle-ingle-ingle stuff. And I loved it.

“Well, I was in that junior school of music at Howard from 12, 13, 14, until I was 18,” she counts. “Then I got the scholarships—one from Xavier and from Juilliard—but my mother wasn’t going to let me go anywhere, you know. My father said, ‘Okay,’ but my mother said, ‘No, you can’t go to Juilliard.’ There was no one living in Manhattan for me to stay with. That was a no-no.” Had Horn attended, she would have overlapped with singer/pianist Nina Simone and organist Trudy Pitts.

As we sit opposite each other, smoke from Horn’s cigarette rises like a veil before her soft hazel eyes. Not only does she speak quietly, she speaks slowly. Somehow, though, having accepted her pace, having entered her sense of time, it does not feel slow. Rather, it seems suspended. Silence punctuates her sentences—the same governing of space that brokered her relationship with Miles Davis. It assumes musical properties here as well. Her phrases echo, imparting their words with deeper meaning or at least a moment in which to contemplate them. Some cast long shadows.

Would Juilliard have significantly changed Horn’s life, her work? No one can know. But her family proved essential in shaping her musical path. Since her toddler’s steps to her grandmother’s piano, the two have always been intimately connected.

“It was mostly about her baby going away,” she reasons in hindsight. “I have no regrets. I was a baby. I was kept close to home. My mother, she was there for me. I never had to open a door to come in by myself or anything. She was there with the food for me and I loved her dearly. That’s what’s wrong with a lot of situations now. There is no mother at home.”

Although she had excelled at her musical education, her parents’ expectations did not exceed what would be typical for their daughter in the 1950s. “Mother thought I was going to wait a few years and then go out and get married; that’s what she was hoping. But that wasn’t on my mind. That’s the first man I ever dated,” she says, indicating her husband, Shep Deering. He had been wandering in and out of the room since he first deposited me in the kitchen. “Been married to him all these years. He’s like a father. We got married in—’56? I forget, and he gets so mad. And I grew up in those next four years because I was free from my mother. That’s a shame to say that. She was very, very, strict.

“I knew how to handle boys. I’ve got two younger brothers. They were pests, both of them. My father was quiet like me and didn’t go for any noise. In high school, I really got a name because I only associated with the musicians, who were just about all guys. There was one girl, brilliant violinist. She went on to study. Went to New York, got pregnant and came home. What a shame.”

The cordless phone rings from where it had been standing upright on the glass tabletop. Horn utters an apology as she scoops it up, narrowly missing a napkin holder stuffed with receipts and loose slips of paper. The kitchen clearly forms a center of activity. “I’m sorry, I have to do this. Hello? Yeah, babe. I just called your name. Called you a pest.” Her tone switches to that of the teasing older sister. But she soon lets her younger sibling off the hook. “Listen, are you home? I’ll call you back. Okay, baby. Bye.

“That was my youngest brother, who lives around my mother’s old house right there,” she explains, pointing over her shoulder to the right. “And my oldest aunt’s house is right there. I’ve lived here all my life in Washington, D.C., in the Northeast area. I never wanted to live anywhere else. I love to live here. Close to my family and everything.” For much of the 1960s and ’70s, Horn performed only locally, sticking close to home and the little girl she raised. Daughter Rainey also lives a stone’s throw away with her husband and their two nearly grown boys. She called about 20 minutes later. “Hello?” Horn answered. “This is your mother. Yes it is.” Like there could really be any doubt.

As Horn thinks back to the home where she grew up, she mentions that she never sang around the house. “No, I just played the piano. But the singing came because my mother sang all the time. She wasn’t a vocalist, but she sang around the house. I knew the songs because I was always listening to her sing. And my mother put on the best records. None of this juggity-juggity-juggity stuff. The Basie band and Ellington; all the good singers. That’s what I heard. My people loved Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, right? Dinah Washington.

“Why didn’t I want to sing before? I was just shy around people my own age. I was mousy, I guess. A mama’s child. I didn’t have any girlfriends. But I was the first one to get ready to go fishin’ at four o’clock in the morning. And I had two uncles who just adored me. I was kind of the favorite in the family because I played the piano. ‘Don’t you want to play like your cousin Shirley?’ All the little cousins had to take lessons and they hated me. But I hung out with my uncles and they were all builders.” Evidence of Horn’s formidable handiwork—she learned carpentry early as well—can be found at every turn in and outside of the house: a carport sheltering the Caddy; the piano room in which she parked her Steinway D; the very table at which we sat.

If she sometimes gives the impression that she led a lonely, almost patrician existence, Horn had her outlets, too. By her later teens, she started sneaking out to go to jam sessions and sit in. She would head down to places like the 7th and T Lounge around the corner from the old Howard Theater. There she met tenor saxophonist Buck Hill, a frequent guest on later albums. “I used to go and try to sit in and the only person who was nice to me was Buck. The bass player would say, ‘Oh, here she comes again. Umm hmm.’ I did what I could do. I got over my fear of singing. But I was fresh out of the classics.” She eventually wound up with a steady gig there and other clubs around town such as the Bohemian Caverns, now recently reopened.

“I just knew, ‘I got to play that piano,’ right?” she says, describing how she acquired her jazz chops. “Then I got interested in Erroll Garner and started listening to him. I knew his things note for note. And slowly I learned. I met Stuff Smith. He was in Washington and came to hear me all the time. And he knew my father—my father’s also from St. Louis. He’d come to the house. He always smelled like cigars. But he’d play that violin and people’d sit out front. Mother used to ask, ‘Mr. Smith, would you go? It’s 11 o’clock.’ That was late. But he would pack up his things. And he’d come back ’cause mother would feed him, you know. And as I grew up, I got to know him better.”

In fact, she made her earliest recording under his leadership: Cat on a Hot Fiddle (1959), reissued for the first time on The Complete Verve Stuff Smith Sessions by Mosaic. She played and sang on the all-Gershwin affair, also accompanying Smith’s one novelty vocal, “Somebody Loves Me.” Her current performances remain stylistically consistent with these beginnings: well-placed block chords complement mellow, spare melodic lines.

Unfortunately, Horn’s playing was falsely credited to pianist John Eaton on the original release, the correction only made with the recent reissue. “I don’t know if I want to hear that again or not because that brings back terrible memories for me,” she says, remembering the disappointment and frustration. “I’d been taken advantage of.”

As she looked through the set’s accompanying booklet, Horn stares at an old photo showing Smith with bassist John Levy and pianist Jimmy Jones. “Is that John Levy?” she asks with surprise. He would become her manager around that time. “It sure is. Isn’t that somethin’. He still looks the same. Sharp dresser. Ah! This is Jimmy Jones. They all played together. Oh, Lord. That’s old stuff. I first got to know Jimmy Jones through his music accompanying Sarah Vaughan. Jimmy Jones played piano like an angel. I’d sit down and sing with him anytime. I think he was only with me once. And I fell in love with him immediately.

“Right now, John Levy is 87 years old. He just wrote an autobiography. I’m gonna check the book,” she teases, implying he’d better have minded his p’s and q’s. “He came to see me right after Miles. John Levy had Cannonball Adderley—first Joe Williams—Nancy Wilson, Wes Montgomery. Hey, he was a big man. All the guys loved him. Number one, he knew music. He was a bass player. John played with George Shearing. And [because he was blind] George couldn’t read contracts, so John started doing the contracts and stopped playing the bass. That’s how he got started.

“See, John Levy heard the first record that I did. It was called Embers and Ashes. And he came to Washington to see who Jimmy Jones was playing for, and there I am, you know. Still, a lot of times people call and ask, ‘Uh, who’s playing piano for you?’ And I laugh. They take out big ads: Shirley Horn and Her Trio. That’s four people!

“John introduced himself to me. Then later he called. ‘Ms. Horn, would you like to come to New York?’ And I said, ‘Well, Mr. Levy, what for?’ He said, ‘You want to record with Quincy Jones?’ ‘Yeah, I’d like to record for Quincy Jones’ [then the A & R man for Mercury Records]. He said, ‘Write a list of songs you’d like to record.’ That’s beautiful. ‘Cause anybody else would have said we want you to record this and this and this and that and that. But here’s the big thing that happened when I got there: ‘You need to stand up.’ They wanted to turn me into a stand-up singer! But I couldn’t get away from that piano.”

The relationships Horn developed with Levy, Quincy Jones and Jimmy Jones resulted in two albums: Loads of Love and Horn With Horns (1963). Jimmy Jones wrote the arrangements for Loads of Love, scoring them for strings, reeds and brass. He accompanied her for two tracks and, by her recollection, also sat in for a couple on Horn With Horns. The pianists hired for the two dates were Hank Jones and Bobby Scott, respectively. At the time, few notable singer/pianists would have accompanied themselves, either in performance or on record.

“After a concert, Carmen [McRae] might sit down and do one song by herself on piano. Sarah [Vaughan] was a bad pianist. Dinah [Washington] was the baddest; Sarah was next. They had a knowledge of the piano, you know. But the record companies, they wanted somebody to stand up and sing. I heard somewhere they were pushing Nat [Cole] to do that. And that’s what Mercury wanted with me. Stand up! Piano playing is secondary. Piano player’s just one of the band. I didn’t—I couldn’t handle anyone playing for me. Because they don’t hear what’s up here and you have no way of knowing what’s going on up here with me,” she points out, her index finger thumping her temple. “I’m my best accompanist. I always know where I’m going.”

Horn decides she needs a glass of water and break. This leads her to ask some of the questions for a change: “Are you hungry?”

“A little bit,” I say.

Shep had come back in the room. “What’s in the refrigerator?” she grills him. “Well, what did we have yesterday? Oh, we had pig feet. You don’t eat pig feet, do you?” Her question is met with wide eyes. That would be a no. She and Shep chuckle. “Etta Jones was in town. See, every time she does a show, we get together here and we cook those big pig feet. Then Etta, a couple of girlfriends and I, we sit around and talk stuff and drink liquor and carry on.

“I don’t have any meat cooked. You like salami? Okay, well, that’s a start. You like potato rolls? Turnip greens? Okay, why don’t you make her a sandwich?” she says, enlisting Shep’s help. He, no doubt, surveyed this scene with amusement. “Do that. Some greens and a salami sandwich. Do you like mustard or mayonnaise on a salami sandwich?”

“On salami, mustard.”

“Salami mustard?” queries Shep smartly. “Never heard of salami mustard.”

“Yeah, get the plate out and make the sandwich. He gives me no respect!” she kids. “We’re not recording now, right?”

The greens arrive first, with some malt vinegar on the side. The construction of the sandwich somehow takes longer. When it arrives, the half-moons of salami faced in the opposite direction as their potato-roll counterparts hang out the sides. It was still tasty.

“You know, it’s been so busy. I should have fixed you a nice meal. Well, next time. You can come back again. I’ve had some here—this guy came in to interview me: ‘Where were you born?’ ‘Why were you born?’ God damn it! Why? It’s very rare that I get someone who’s writing about the music. That’s what it’s all about. ‘She smokes a lot.’ Somebody wrote that. What difference does it make? And oh, I was hard to get along with one time. Damn right!

“One woman wanted to know ‘Did you and Miles Davis have an affair?'” Horn mimicked the journalist’s voice, projecting an unfortunate combination of nerve and curiosity. “Can you believe it? I wanted to tell her yes, you know? It was stupid, so I just smiled at her. Some of the stuff I have here just tears me up.”

Horn speaks fondly of Davis and the early days she spent in New York at the Vanguard. “I worked six days a week, I don’t remember how many weeks,” she begins. “It was like being in a fantasyland because every night there was something to look forward to: seeing another person’s face I had on a record. Miles would introduce me to all these people.

“See, that’s when I lived to go to work. I learned about swinging. And I learned that from Wynton Kelly and Philly Joe Jones. Paul [Chambers] wasn’t around long after I got there. They knew how to swing. You could just feel it. Lord have mercy. You would get down on your knees. I can’t remember what they were playing because I was somewhere else—a little piece of heaven.”

One night, Kelly deftly convinced her to take his place. “Wynton said, ‘I hurt my hand! Sit in with me for a minute.’ He was playing a blues. I’m sitting right in front and he fooled me. So, I went up there and got behind the guys. And everybody applauded. ‘Oh, Lord, what am I going to do?’ But I finally brightened up. Miles wanted me to do the second tune and then I had to come off. There was nobody against me, but I was scared, simple as that. Everybody on the stage was a giant. Everybody in the audience, I know from records. I felt too much pressure.”

She shakes her head when asked why Davis didn’t particularly care for singers. “I don’t know. A lot of singers wanted him,” is her rationalization. “He didn’t talk nicely about singers at all, you know. He liked to listen to me just sing a song. It’s something about the way I use space. He’d sit for a long time. Part of me was gone when he died; he was so dear. We loved each other. We loved the person in the music. And he left me! Jive turkey. Did you know he was going to record some more songs with me?” Davis appeared on perhaps her most exquisite album, You Won’t Forget Me (Verve; 1991), and she paid him fitting tribute with I Remember Miles (Verve; 1998).

What, strangely, does she remember about the time spent outside the club, her first extended stay in New York? “I looked at television. I cooked. Yeah, I cook in hotels, honey! I’ve been staying in this one place for 17 years and they know I’m gonna cook greens.” When Horn needs to be far away, she makes herself feel at home. “And I don’t like to go out during the day. If I want to have something to eat, I want to be quiet someplace and look at my stories. You know I look at The Young and the Restless. Yes, indeed. As the World Turns, The Bold and the Beautiful, Guiding Light.”

The soap opera habit may actually have some relevance, too. With about 40 years of regular viewing under her belt, the daytime devotee may have picked up some tricks of the trade and put them to work in her songs. “I’ve done a lot of heartbreaking songs and I have not lived what I sing,” she states. The muted TV is on all this time in the background. “I’m a good actress. And I didn’t have to beat doors down and pound the streets of New York to get into this business. I was brought in on a carpet. There’s Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, John Levy. Who else do you need?

“I came from a loving family. My mother and father loved each other and I saw a lot of love. All my life I’ve just felt like I was in my family’s arms. But I’m an emotional person and I love people. I love hard. So, if I haven’t been in that situation, I can imagine somebody else going through whatever the story is all about. Sometimes in San Francisco, we do Yoshi’s and they come in and they cry and I feel bad. ‘Come on, don’t do that.’ But they’re all happy and eyes tearin’ and snottin’ and all that when they leave.” She has her more lighthearted moments as well.

“You tired of me runnin’ my mouth yet?” she purrs hopefully. Clearly, no is the right answer. The last question of the evening has finally come. The once reluctant storyteller seems like she is ready to field questions on at least a few more decades, but she has worn out her interviewer.

It is now pitch black outside, and the gentle lady of the house turns on the lights, opens the door and expresses her wishes for a safe journey home. Originally Published