Shirley Valerie Horn was born on May 1, 1934 in Washington, D.C. and was encouraged by her grandmother to begin piano lessons at age four. At twelve she studied piano and composition at Howard University and later majored there in classical music. Unable to afford to attend, Shirley was forced to decline an offered a place at the Juilliard School. Forming her first jazz piano trio when she was twenty, her early piano influences were Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal that moved away from her classical background.
She then became enamored with the famous U Street jazz area of Washington, sneaking into jazz clubs before she was of legal age. She was most noted for her ability to accompany herself with nearly incomparable independence and ability on the piano while singing, the rich, lush, smoky contralto gave an unprecedented expression to every song she sang. Although she could swing as strongly as any straight-ahead jazz artist, Horn’s reputation rode on her exquisite ballad work.
Horn first achieved fame in 1960, when Miles Davis “discovered” her and his public praise was a rare commodity. She recorded with Stuff Smith in 1959, and on small labels into the Sixties eventually landing on Mercury and Impulse. Over the course of her career she recorded some four-dozen albums both as leader and sideman.
Following the arrival of the Beatles, Horn scaled down performances to her native D.C. clubs, raised her daughter and worked full time in an office. Recording sporadically from 1965 through the late 80s, by the early Nineties her resurgence came with “Here’s To Life” and the albums began to flow, nearly one a year until 2003.
The small setting performer, singer and pianist Shirley Horn kept her same trio for twenty-five years. In the early 200s due to health issues she cut back her schedule, and battling diabetes and breast cancer passed away on October 20, 2005. She was nominated for a Grammy 9 times and won for “I Remember Miles”, performed for several White House invites, received an honorary Doctorate from Berklee College of Music and was given a NEA Jazz Master Award.