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Sons of Miles
SHIRLEY HORN: The Art of the Slow Ballad
by Mike Zwerin
17 September 1998


PARIS - Shirley Horn's grandmother told her that empty barrels make the most noise.

"Space is a valuable commodity in music," Horn said. "Too many musicians rush through everything with too many notes. I need time to take the picture. A ballad should be a ballad. It's important to understand what the song is saying, and learn how to tell the story. It takes time. I can't rush it. I really can't rush it."

She put on a dark pair of dark glasses: "Is this going to take long?"

Toots Thielemans, who was in the room, stopped doodling on his harmonica and said: "They're going to have to invent a new turntable at a slower speed for Shirley's ballads."

Time is redefined in Horn's presence. Toots paused. Somebody's small child in the hotel suite stopped fidgeting. It was like "slow" was infectious. We waited for slow room service with unusual patience. We were, all six of us in Horn's time zone. I stopped thinking about hot lunch awaiting me at home.

"I speak slowly," she said. "There's a place in Paris where I'd like to work one day. It's called the Slow Club."

Two dreams-come-true, Shirley Horn is a Sarah Vaughan who does not overwhelm you with everything she knows at once, and a pianist with the sophistication of a Herbie Hancock who does not sacrifice all 10 fingers on the harmonic alter. Yes indeed.

She is an entertainer who can, without hype, be called an artist. She continues the line of singer/pianists that runs from Fats Waller through Nat (King) Cole. Her album "You Won't Forget Me" was a sure-fire hit from the get-go.

Major league soloists including Miles Davis, Buck Hill, Branford and Wynton Marsalis and Toots Thielemans confirm the accolades musicians like Quincy Jones, Ahmad Jamal and George Shearing have for decades bestowed upon her. With a triumphal stand at New York's Village Vanguard, the album and more work in general than she wants to handle, Horn was finally forced - she considers travel a plague - to graduate from the in-hiding hometown-heroine role she has played to the hilt for decades in Washington, DC.

Once upon a time, the phone rang while she was feasting with her family on organically raised chicken on her mother-in-law's farm in Virginia. Her mother-in-law took it and said: "Man says he's Miles Davis."

To make the fairy tale short, she went to New York where Davis told the owner of the Village Vanguard that Miles would not work there unless Shirley Horn was on the same bill. Miles is Miles, she worked. Lena Horne was in the room.

So was Sidney Poitier, who told Horn: "I really enjoyed your music."

She started piano at four, studied composition at Howard University at 12 and at 18 was awarded a composition scholarship by Juillard. There are not many credits to her career. It has been a slow career.

She studied with no famous teacher, worked with no prestigious leaders. She's always led her own trio. Never been a sideperson. Her name came up increasingly in musicians' conversation throughout the 1980s but bringing up her daughter came first. Horn was a grandmother before she began to appear in upscale East Side New York clubs like Michael's Pub and The Blue Note.

Shirley Horn photograph/picture

She was in Paris for two (sold-out) concerts, to promote her new album, and to discuss the next one, a collaboration, with Toots.

"I love Shirley, "Toots said, followed by a chin-dropping grin. "She plays good for a girl. She plays good for a boy too."

A jazz impresario once accused her of being a cocktail piano player. "Not pianist, piano player," she emphasized the condescension, trying not to look too hurt. When I asked her if a cocktail piano player was actually such a bad thing to be, she replied, hesitating: "No."

For a minute it looked as though it was going to hang there like that, the classic interviewer's nightmare. Toots, however, to the rescue: "It depends on who's drinking the cocktails."

Horn laughed: "I love Toots."

Me too. Saved by the harmonica player. Toots has no trouble with words.

"Are we almost through?" she asked.

For many musicians, music is therapy, never to be explained. They may try, with distaste or desperation, because it is expected of them. Melodious metaphors do not come naturally to these people, and the music is the metaphor to begin with so why bother?

On the other hand, there are those who speak better than they play. Explanations can be a substitute for substance. The talkers spout hot quotes and put judgmental jewels on the table because they believe, not totally in error, that's what the media wants.

An interview with Keith Richards is an example of the latter - Shirley Horn the former. Her defenses are even more difficult to break down because she appears to choose not to speak. It's not even out of a sense of duty, she's playing hide and seek: "Do you have many more questions?"

Horn's minimalist interviews are in perfect harmony with her music. It is astounding how much speed she can inject into a slow tempo, how much drama there can be between two beats.

She's all ellipses. Hungry propelling silences are the body of her work... the good-old three-dot Walter Winchell transitions keeping you on the edge until the next tidbit. With her, it's not like waiting for something to happen. Her ellipses do not, as in the dictionary definition, represent omissions or quick transitions.

Imagine her singing: "cause his...is...is the only...music..." The spaces hang out there on hold...you begin to wonder if it's terminal...certainly a strange place to end a song. Maybe she's forgotten the words...or just being weird...with that impish smile...toying with us...until the full impact of that effortlessly stretched, dramatically shaded blank space brings a gasp when the phrase is finally resolved at the last millisecond. "...that makes me dance."

Toots and Horn ran down material for their upcoming album of sad songs titled "Tears." Fascinated by such fine musicians at work, I was amazed to discover that four hours had flown by slowly since I arrived. When I put on my coat at 6:30 P.M., Horn said: "Are we finished already?"

They studied a menu from a Belgian mussels restaurant downstairs where she had dined several days before. "My dear," Toots asked Horn affecting an aristocratic tone. "How did it come to pass that you have this menu?"

"This!?" she looked at it in mock horror, and then at me. "I took it, she continued. "Yes, Shirley Horn stole a menu. See? You wait long enough, you finally learn some truth about me."



Photo: Shirley Horn.
Credit: Christian Rose

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