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Shirley Horn: The queen of silence and anticipation

Shirley Horn, March, 1991
Christian DUCASSE
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Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Shirley Horn, March, 1991

The late Shirley Horn had a jazz career that most musicians could only dream of, but it wasn't a straight trajectory. Her route to jazz stardom had twists and turns, a long hiatus and a late career resurgence that yielded some of her finest work.

Shirley Horn in 1951.
/ Keter Betts
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Keter Betts
Shirley Horn in 1951.

On this Crate Digging episode of Jazz Night in America, we uncover a brilliant late-career moment from Jazz at Lincoln Center's inaugural season, in 1991. The concert featured her longtime trio, with drummer Steve Williams and the late bassist Charles Ables. They were joined onstage by a few of Ms. Horn's illustrious admirers: trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and the late harmonica master Toots Thielemans.

This performance perfectly illustrates why Horn is considered a "musician's musician" in the first place. Miles Davis was an early champion, and remained a lifelong fan. Quincy Jones produced some of her first recordings. But for a variety of reasons, it took nearly three decades for her to finally get her due.

Neither just a singer nor just a pianist, Horn uniquely fused the two, and could deliver a lyric like no other. "The way she could sustain suspense, control emotions, and lead you to that peak," marvels our host, Christian McBride. "That's one of the most masterful things an artist can do." That's Shirley Horn.

Shirley Horn.
Ron Galella, Ltd. / Ron Galella Collection via Getty
/
Ron Galella Collection via Getty
Shirley Horn.

Musicians:

Shirley Horn, piano, vocals; Charles Ables, bass; Steve Williams, drums

Featuring: Wynton Marsalis, trumpet; Branford Marsalis, tenor saxophone; Buck Hill, tenor saxophone; Toots Thielemans, harmonica

Set List:

  • "I Just Found Out About Love" (Harold Adamson, Jimmy McHugh)
  • "Foolin' Myself" ft. Buck Hill (Jack Lawrence, Peter Tinturin) 
  • "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" ft. Wynton Marsalis (Joe Greene)
  • "Soothe Me" ft. Toots Thieleman (Greene)
  • "It Had to Be You" ft. Branford Marsalis (Isham Jones, Gus Kahn)
  • "All My Tomorrows" (Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen) 
  • "Nice 'n' Easy" (Lew Spence, Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman) 
  • "You Won't Forget Me" ft. Miles Davis (Kermit Goell, Fred Spielman)
  • Shirley Horn and her band: Charles Ables (left) and Steve Williams (right) in 1989.
    / Shirley Horn
    /
    Shirley Horn
    Shirley Horn and her band: Charles Ables (left) and Steve Williams (right) in 1989.
    Shirley Horn and Quincy Jones.
    / Shirley Horn
    /
    Shirley Horn
    Shirley Horn and Quincy Jones.
    Shirley Horn early publicity shot, 1960.
    / Shirley Horn
    /
    Shirley Horn
    Shirley Horn early publicity shot, 1960.

    Credits:

    Writer and Producer: Sarah Geledi; Producer: Alex Ariff; Consulting Editor: Katie Simon; Concert Engineer: Jim Anderson; Host: Christian McBride; Project Manager: Suraya Mohamed; Senior Director of NPR Music: Keith Jenkins; Executive Producers: Anya Grundmann and Gabrielle Armand.

    Special thanks to Rainy Williams.

    Copyright 2022 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

    Sarah Geledi
    Sarah Geledi left her job in advertising in Montreal to pursue a career in music in New York City. She fulfilled that mission, producing content for the JAM Festival at WBGO, segments for The Checkout, and programs for WWOZ and PRI's Afropop Worldwide. She also served as a producer for NYC Winter Jazzfest before landing the "job of her dreams," producing radio for Jazz Night in America.