And then there was that piano. Ethereal as birdsong.
I saw her live more times than I can count. I never missed her appearances at Scullers and Regattabar in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when I lived there and across the river in Boston. Venues perfect her minimal trio of bass, drum, piano. Funk would rise like prayer from the ivory and turn the rooms into the most sacred of sanctuaries. Every now and then, the hush would be broken by a snicker from the audience, much like Shirley's own during a song, because she'd forgotten a lyric. A whole verse, even.
But no matter. She'd keep right on playing, taking off and putting on her black gloves several times in the middle of the song. Pressing the knuckles on one hand with the other and vice versa. Diabetic neuropathy no doubt. Didn't stop her from drinking. And smoking. Would have one with you right after the concert if you realized she was just a homegirl out for the night. A homegirl who just happened to deliver yet another performance that made you believe in all things divine.
Her story is the stuff of legend. When she died in 2003 of complications from diabetes, I mourned under the weeping willow tree behind the pond on my new farm. Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post wrote what is arguably the best online biography of this great artist. Aptly entitled "Mesmerizing Jazz Singer and Pianist", Bernstein captures the essence of Shirley with this:
With her slow, meditative ballads, Horn was one of the leading jazz singers of her generation and unquestionably was Washington's preeminent jazz musician....
An uncompromising perfectionist, she worked hard to develop a personal, pensive sound. Her artistry had long depended on the interaction between voice and piano, but in 2001, Horn's right foot was amputated because of her diabetes. As a result, it was difficult for her to use the elegant pedal work that marked her piano style.
In later years, Horn won legions of listeners with her exaggeratedly slow, intimate ballads in which her words seemed to melt in the air.
Around the Horn
Shirley Horn is one of those about whom neither enough nor too much can be said. This is particularly true in a time such as ours, when the art of popular singing has diminished substantially, primarily because popular music has become narrowly youth-oriented, focusing on the naive, the sentimental, the crude, and the vulgar. Jazz, of course, was always an old soul in the new world; its roots in blues and Spirituals took it out of the adolescent arena from the very beginning. Its emotions were always the emotions of adults, even if those adults were describing their own childhoods.
This is what has always been attractive about the work of Shirley Horn. While she can summon up the innocence of the hopefulness of a young girl, she never sounds like one, even when her vocal tone can move you all the way back to such a time. What you hear from her is that invincible and invisible secret all special artists have in common, which is soul. Horn places all of her best on what the heart will tell, what it remembers, what it dreams of being, and whit it longs to be again. In every phrase and on every record and at every public performance, she brings the kind of gift we always hope we will encounter when we step into the zone where some music is supposed to be going on.
Here, again, she goes at it and makes you know that, no matter how familiar you think you are with the material, or how unexpected a choice might be, you are not going to hear the overdone, the insincere, the barely felt. She knows when to put some breath on a note, when to pinch it, the best place to take a pause, how to most effectively - which is to say emotionally - make a shift upward or downward in register. One of her special gifts, when she decides to be what they used to call a torch singer, is her ability to make a song almost into a speech, with the notes quite subtly sneaking into the words. She can either declaim or give a melancholy monologue or let you in on a secret or, best of all, push through recollection with such pleasant authority that Shirley Horn can give you the impression that all of that feeling is meant for only the two ears that you possess. She is an artist. She is a mystery. She is a miracle.
NPR's Jazz Profiles: Shirley Horn (with audio)
Shirley Horn Discography