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Headshot of Shirley Horn with left hand holdinig neck of her fur coat closed
Shirley Horn, undated photograph by Larry Busacca, Shirley Horn Papers, Box/Folder 26/8.

Shirley Horn: D.C.’s Own

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The following is a guest post by Stephanie Akau, music archivist.

Pianist and vocalist Shirley Horn (1934-2005) is an important part of the legacy of jazz in Washington, D.C., which also includes Duke Ellington, Andrew Hite and Billy Taylor. Unlike some of her Washington contemporaries who moved to New York to pursue performing careers, Shirley Horn lived her entire life in northeast D.C. She started piano lessons at age 4 with the encouragement of her mother, and at age 12 went on to study at Howard University’s Junior School of Music. Before graduating from Dunbar High School in 1952, she became interested in jazz. In the Dunbar 1952 yearbook, it was clear that Horn already had her sights set on a music career.

Shirley Horn's entry in the 1952 Dunbar High School yearbook: a headshot and address, list of her activities playing in orchestra and accompanying school assemblies and goal to become a musician. This is a photocopy from the yearbook in the Shirley Horn collection..,
Photocopy of page in Dunbar Yearbook, Shirley Horn Papers, Box/Folder 17/9.

Around age 17, Horn discovered her singing voice, finding she could earn more money if she sang while playing piano. Her velvety alto combined with virtuosic piano technique came to define her artistic style. Horn went on to Howard University, started her own jazz group, and performed in D.C. jazz clubs. After graduating in 1956 with a bachelor’s degree in piano performance, she married Sheppard “Shep” Deering, a mechanic for the Washington Area Metro Transportation Authority. Their daughter, Rainy, was born several years later. Horn’s first album, “Embers and Ashes” (Stere-o-craft, 1960), caught the ear of Miles Davis, who invited her to open for him at the Village Vanguard.

Impressed by Horn’s set at the Village Vanguard, Quincy Jones produced her two next two albums, “Loads of Love” and “Shirley Horn with Horns” (Mercury, 1963). Horn was the vocalist on Jones’s soundtracks for the 1968 films “A Dandy in Aspic” and “For Love of Ivy.” As Rainy grew older, Horn decided to limit her performance touring and focus her work locally so she could spend more time with her. Consequently, the publicity materials in her collection provide valuable insight into a formerly vibrant D.C. jazz scene whose venues have largely disappeared over the past fifty years.

Flyer promoting Shirley Horn's engagement at the Top O'Foolery jazz club, October 12, 1971, with closeup photograph of Shirley Horn leaning on the keyboard of a grand piano.
Advertisement for Top O’Foolery jazz club, 1971, Shirley Horn Papers, Box/Folder 26/2.

Her trio included Billy Hart on drums and Charles Ables on bass. Longtime D.C. resident Steve Williams later replaced Hart as drummer.

In 1981, Horn gave an informal performance at the JazzTimes convention held in Washington, D.C. Paul Acket, the founder of the North Sea Jazz Festival, was in the audience and invited her to perform that summer, which effectively re-energized her career. Horn, Williams, and Ables performed, recorded, and toured internationally over 20 years. After Ables died in 2001, bassist Ed Howard, another Washingtonian, stepped in.

Shirley Horn, flanked by her trio members Charles Ables and Steve Williams, all attired in formal wear
From left, Charles Ables, Shirley Horn, Steve Williams, photographer unknown, Shirley Horn Papers, Box/Folder 26/12.

Horn recorded with notable musicians such as Miles Davis, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Gerry Mulligan, Kenny Burrell, Toots Thielemans and Ahmad Jamal. She was nominated for a Grammy Award nine times, winning once for “I Remember Miles” (Verve, 1998), the album dedicated to Davis. Horn received the Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Excellence (2003), Kennedy Center Honor (2004), and was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master (2005) shortly before her death at age 71. The lyric of one of Horn’s best-loved songs, “You Won’t Forget Me” by Kermit Goell and Fred Spielman, succinctly encapsulates her music and legacy:

You won’t forget me, though you may try.

I’m part of memories, too wonderful to die.

Thanks to the generosity of Shirley Horn’s daughter, the Library of Congress Music Division acquired this legacy collection. The Shirley Horn Papers contains music and correspondence from some of the songwriters she recorded, including Johnny Mandel, Richard Rodney Bennett and Alan and Marilyn Bergman: the collection is now open for research. It was my honor to author the finding aid, which is available online via the Library of Congress website.

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you Stephanie and Libby for writing and posting this lovely profile of Shirley Horn…a fellow DC native. Shirley was a family friend who met my aunt Elaine when they were girls taking lessons from the same piano teacher (her name was Frances Hughes). My aunt was also a very good pianist who sparked my interest in music but she never played professionally. She loved children and taught me, my siblings, cousins and many of the neighborhood kids the basics. Because Shirley lived in our northeast DC neighborhood, she and my aunt remained close and when I was old enough, I would go to some of the night clubs she played in. Aunt Elaine followed Shirley’s career closely and attended some of her album release parties. One of my favorite memories of Shirley Horn is when she performed at LC back in 2004. Of course, aunt Elaine was there along with my wife and another friend. After the concert, we all went to the Bohemian Caverns, a well known club for some late night dining and more live music. It was great to see these two friends, swapping stories and laughter and reminiscing about old times. It was an evening I’ll never forget! Now, whenever I put on a Shirley Horn album, I’m reminded of those good old days growing up in DC, surrounded by good music and good times with family and friends. Aunt Elaine would be thrilled that her friend’s collection is available for research at the Library of Congress!

  2. Definitely an excellent read about the impeccable Ms. Shirley Horn and the jazz scene in DC in that era! Thanks

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