Shirley Horn Profile: Songs and Stories

Commencement honoree Shirley Horn talks about surviving and succeeding in music.

If it hadn't been for one very large teddy bear, music lovers might have never gotten to hear the voice of Shirley Horn.

When Horn was 17, she was playing a solo jazz piano gig in a Washington, D.C., restaurant when an elderly man, a regular customer, came into the restaurant with a stuffed bear as tall as Horn.

"It was getting close to Christmas, and somehow I knew that teddy bear was for me," said Horn during a conversation just before Berklee's commencement weekend. "He sent a note up asking me to sing 'Melancholy Baby.'"

Horn had never sung in public, but she complied, and after the performance, the man gave Horn her first payment as a vocalist, the bear. The restaurant owner gave her a raise to keep her singing and before long, Horn was leading a band and playing frequent gigs as a vocalist and pianist.

Some 50 years later, Horn is still singing and playing the piano and is known as one of the finest musicians in jazz to combine the two instruments. Berklee recognized her skill and artistry by presenting her with an honorary doctorate of music degree at Commencement 2002.

Surviving and succeeding as a vocalist is not something that came easily for Horn, who says she was shy and quiet before stepping into the spotlight as a young musician. But it was the behavior of unruly audiences, ironically, that taught Horn how to avoid stress over performing.

"The public hardens you," she said. "When I started working in clubs, I found out people could be rude. There would be talk and laughter during your songs."

Rather than cower from such treatment, Horn gained strength from it and became more confident as a bandleader. She also learned how to overcome sexism at a time when few women led bands. "They soon found out I meant business," she said about men who gave her a hard time early in her career. "It was the way I carried myself. I didn't like stuff. I didn't take any, and I didn't give any."

Student vocalist Marianne Solivan (left), who sang "Here's to Life" during the commencement concert, chats with Shirley Horn.

A few years after Horn began leading her own band, she entered the recording studio for the first time. She released "Embers and Ashes" in 1961, catching the ear of trumpeter Miles Davis, who subsequently asked her to open for him at the Village Vanguard, in New York.

Davis and Horn were well suited to share the stage, as both favored a smokey tone on their respective lead instruments and a minimalist approach to melody. Horn became known as a vocalist who never overdid anything. There was, and is, a sparseness to her singing and accompaniment that creates a pleasurable pattern of tension and release and seems to infuse the music with more meaning. Horn says she has always sung this way partially because of an obsession with a song's words.

"It's got to have a good lyric and it's got to be something I can tell a story with," says Horn. "I try to paint pictures. I have to be able to tell a story because I want you to see and hear the story I do."

Horn says her natural inclinication toward slow and medium tempos also helps support her storytelling desires. "I'm kind of slow. I take my time because I find I feel better about the music, the lyrics. While I'm trying to tell the story to you, I've got to be a firm believer. It's got to touch me," she says.

Many students cite Horn as an influence, including Professional Music major Ewa Lemisiewicz, a jazz singer from Warsaw, Poland, who received her bachelor's degree on the same day Horn received her honorary doctorate. Inspired by Horn's example, Lemisiewicz began studying piano with Berklee's dean of jazz piano, Ray Santisi, and hopes to accompany herself on piano someday.

"She's creating her own world," said Lemisiewicz, when asked about Horn's music. "Her vocal phrasing and the way she accompanies herself on piano makes a complete musical statement."

Regardless of how far Lemisiewicz pursues her piano studies, Horn believes she is taking a step that is essential for every singer.

"A couple of years of piano can save your life," Horn said. "Every vocalist should have a knowledge of the piano, even if it's no more than speaking intelligently about the music and knowing what key you'll sing in. It also helps you if you go shopping for an accompanist. If you don't know any (piano), you're in trouble."

Berklee students performed songs associated with Horn at the commencement concert, including "Some of My Best Friends Are the Blues" and "Sunday in New York" from Traveling Light (1965); the title track from Here's to Life (1991); and "Why Don't You Do Right?" from You're My Thrill (2001).

Before and after the concert, Horn was greeted by student performers, graduates, and parents. Confined to a wheelchair due to health problems she encountered last year, Horn was nonetheless energetic and generous, speaking with people after the concert for a long period. Receiving the invitation to come to Berklee in 2001, when she was spending nearly as much time with doctors as musicians, Horn says the timing was perfect.

"It came up at a time when I needed to hear it," Horn said. "I had some health problems that set me down for a minute. This (honor) is really wonderful and means an awful lot to me."

Later this year, Horn plans to return to the studio to record her next album. "I'm going to do some songs that I just have to do, have to put on record. Songs that haunt me," Horn said. And songs that, no doubt, contain stories that no one can tell quite the way she does.