Jazz Profiles from NPR
Shirley Horn
Produced by Margot Stage

Shirley Horn  

New York Times music critic John Pareles once wrote that "songs are lucky when Shirley Horn chooses them." Horn is known for her ability to get inside a lyric, transforming it into a deeply emotional and personal expression of jazz -- a skill that has allowed her to have a career built on love songs.

Listen to arranger Johnny Mandel, drummer Steve Williams, poet and jazz critic A.B. Spellman, and A&R director Richard Seidel talk about Shirley's music

Shirley grew up in a musical household and has fond memories of both her parents singing love songs around the house throughout her childhood. As a toddler she would visit her grandmother and play the piano that was in the parlor.

Listen to Shirley recall playing her grandmother's piano

Born May 1, 1934, in Washington, D.C., Shirley attended Howard University's Junior School of Music as a teenager, where she studied classical piano -- particularly the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff and Claude Debussy. But she was eventually seduced by jazz and began listening to pianists like Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal.

Listen to Shirley describe her transition from classical to jazz

Shirley began playing piano gigs at local nightclubs and restaurants. One day, a gentleman with a giant teddy bear walked in a dining room where she was performing and promised to give her the bear if she would sing "Melancholy Baby" for him -- it was the start of her career as a vocalist.

Listen to Shirley recall the beginning of her singing career

Miles Davis  

Shirley's debut recording, Embers and Ashes, was released in 1960 on a small independent label. The record found its way to trumpeter Miles Davis (left), who was impressed enough to track Horn down in Washington and invite her open for him at New York's Village Vanguard.

Listen to Shirley remember her first phone call from Miles Davis

Vanguard owner Max Gordon had never heard of a singer named Shirley Horn and was reluctant to grant the trumpeter's request. But Davis insisted, telling Gordon that if Horn didn't sing, he wouldn't play.

Listen to Shirley recall the star-studded crowd at her Village Vanguard debut

Davis saw in Horn's singing style an approach to music not unlike his own. Both artists are recognized for their discriminating use of "space" -- the silences between the sounds -- to create a dramatic tension, particularly in the performance of ballads.

Listen to Siegel explain the similarities in the music of Davis and Horn

I want you to feel what I feel. I want you to see the picture I'm trying to paint. I want you to be beside me. Be inside me. That's the way I feel.

-- Shirley Horn  

Davis remained a close friend and mentor to Horn until his death in 1991. Following her performance at the Vanguard, Horn recorded several albums with producer Quincy Jones for the Mercury label. But Horn had been signed as a vocalist, and had to leave the piano playing to someone else.

Listen to Shirley share her disenchantment of not playing piano on her Mercury albums

After her Mercury albums, Shirley returned to Washington -- far enough from New York to allow her to focus on her personal life, yet close enough to still be in touch with the city's vibrant jazz scene. Her decision to move saw her recording opportunities dwindle, but in 1986, Verve Records took the advice of producer Richard Seidel and signed Horn and her trio to a contract.

Listen to Seidel remember the first time he heard Shirley perform

Her trio recordings emerged with numerous Grammy Award nominations, including one for her most popular album to date, You Won't Forget Me, which featured cameos by Miles Davis and harmonica player Toots Theilemans. A memorable performance in Paris yielded yet another well-received Verve release in 1992: I Love You Paris.

That was also the year Shirley fulfilled a long-held ambition to work with celebrated arranger and composer Johnny Mandel. Their album together, Here's to Life, hit number one on the Billboard charts for a record-breaking 17 weeks.

Listen to Shirley and Johnny Mandel talk about their musical chemistry

Throughout her career, Shirley Horn has never compromised her music or her personal life in pursuit of fame. She took her time with success in the same way she controls a slow and shifting tempo on one of her ballads. But all the while, she fulfills her heartfelt ambitions by doing what she loves—making music.

Listen to Shirley reflect on her career


View the Shirley Horn show playlist


Browse the NPR Jazz Feature on Shirley Horn

Listen to an NPR Jazz review of Horn's 2001 CD Your're My Thrill


  • The Verve Records Shirley Horn Web page