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Shirley Horn Biography

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Shirley Valerie Horn (May 1, 1934 in Washington, D.C. – October 20, 2005) was an American jazz singer and pianist.

Shirley Horn collaborated with many jazz greats including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans, Carmen McRae, Wynton Marsalis and others. She was most noted for her ability to accompany herself with nearly incomparable independence and ability on the piano while singing, something descibed by arranger Johnny Mandel as "like having two heads", and for her rich, lush voice, which was described by noted producer and arranger Quincy Jones as "like clothing, as she seduces you with her voice". Horn has also been cited by noted Canadian jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall as a major inspiration and influence. Horn is thought by some to be one of a quartet of America's "great jazz divas", along with Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan.

Shirley Horn began playing piano at an early age, and had thoughts as a teenager of becoming a classical artist. She was offered a scholarship to Juilliard, but turned it down for financial reasons. She then became enamormed with the famous U Street jazz area of Washington (largely destroyed in the 1969 riots), sneaking into jazz clubs before she was of legal age. Horn first achieved fame in 1960, when Miles Davis "discovered" her. Davis' praise had particular resonance in two respects, one because he was so highly respected as a musician, and two because he rarely had anything positive to publicly offer about any musician at that time. Shirley had, though, recorded several songs with violinist Stuff Smith in 1959 both as a pianist and a singer. After her discovery by Davis, she recorded albums on different small labels in the early 1960s, eventually landing contracts with larger labels Mercury Records and Impulse Records. She was popular with jazz critics, but did not achieve significant popular success. Quincy Jones attempted to make Horn into a pure vocalist in several recording sessions, something he later hinted may have been a mistake. Horn was also disturbed by the changes in popular music in the 1960's following the arrival of The Beatles, and stated "I will not stoop to conquer" in largely rejecting efforts to remake her into a popular singer. From the late-1960s, she concentrated on raising a family and limited her performing largely to her native Washington, D.C., while she often worked full-time as an office worker.

Once her family was grown, she began touring more widely from 1978 onwards. She is best known for her recordings with Verve Records since 1987. Horn was nominated for nine Grammy Awards during her career, winning in 1999 for Jazz Vocal Album for I Remember Miles, a tribute to her friend and encourager.

Preferring to perform in small settings, as with her trio, she recorded with orchestra too, as on the 1992 album Here's to life, which is highly rated by her fans, the title song being generally considered as her signature song. Arranger Johnny Mandel won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocal(s) for that album. A video documentary of Horn's life and music was released at the same time as "Here's To Life" and shared its title. At the time Mandel commented that Horn's piano skill was comparable to that of the noted jazz great Bill Evans. A follow-up was made in 2001, named You're My Thrill.

She was officially recognized by the 109th US Congress for "her many achievements and contributions to the world of jazz and American culture", and performed at The White House for several U.S. presidents. Horn was awarded an honorary Doctor of Music degree from the Berklee College of Music in 2002.

Due to health problems in the early 2000s, Horn had to cut back on her appearances. From 2002, a foot amputation forced her to leave the piano playing to pianist George Mesterhazy. In late 2004, Horn felt able of playing again, and recorded a live album for Verve live at Vine Street with trumpet player Roy Hargrove, which did not satisfy her. It remains unreleased except for three tracks on But Beautiful - the best of Shirley Horn.

She had been battling breast cancer and diabetes when she died, aged 71. She is interred at Ft. Lincoln Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

An extensive Shirley Horn Discography with detailed recording and personnel information is maintained at http://www.jazzdiscography.com/Artists/Horn/.
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