Listen to Shirley Horn’s “Here’s to Life” album and it could easily become one of your favorites. She is regarded as the premier singing pianist in jazz since Nat King Cole, and it’s been said that when Shirley Horn sings a song, she changes the way we hear it forever.
“What I remember first in my life is playing the piano,” Shirley said in an interview with Verve Music Group. “I’d go to my grandmother’s home. She had a parlor with a great big piano. The parlor was for company, and it was closed off with French doors. It was always cold, but I didn’t want to do anything but just go in there and sit on the piano stool.” When she was four years old, she started taking piano lessons.
In her teens Shirley won a scholarship to Juilliard, but her family decided that it would be too costly for her to live in New York City. She stayed in her hometown of Washington, DC – she was born there May 1, 1934 – and went to Howard University where she studied classical music.
Shirley eased into her role as a vocalist one Christmas when she was 17. She was playing at a local club when an older gentleman who was a regular patron came in with a turquoise teddy bear that she said was as tall as she was. He asked her to sing “Melancholy Baby,” and he’d give her the bear. She did, and he did. Audiences continued to ask her to sing, and she started to realize how much she loved singing.
Though her focus had been classical music, Shirley realized that if she sang and played jazz, she might be able to make a living at it. “I loved Rachmaninoff, but then Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninoff. And Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy,” she liked to say about her transition from classical music to jazz.
Shirley was nominated for multiple Grammys and won the award in 1998 for best jazz vocal performance with “I Remember Miles”. It was the legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis who invited Shirley to open for him at New York City’s Village Vanguard, and these engagements catapulted her into the national limelight. Shirley received many other honors and accolades throughout her career.
“My family loved music and there was always music around from the greatest singers and bands,” Shirley said in the interview with Verve, her label when she died. “Usually, I just learned the songs my mother used to sing around the home. I would ask her, “What’s the name of this one, what’s the name of that one?’ because I’d have the melody in my mind. In fact, probably 75 percent of the songs I do are ones I heard at home.”
Shirley died October 20, 2005 in Cheverly, MD at the age of 71.
Be sure to listen to “Here’s to Life” on our “Women in Music” playlist.