If you have ever wondered what was meant by the saying "talent will out," take a look at Shirley Horn.
For years, her singing was one of the best-kept secrets in jazz. Although she made quite a splash in the early '60s -- Quincy Jones raved about her "incredible sound," while Miles Davis was so taken with her 1960 debut, "Embers and Ashes," that he invited her to open for him at the Village Vanguard in New York -- Horn felt that motherhood was more important than her musical career. So she withdrew from the jazz world and returned to Washington, where she limited herself to local appearances for more than a decade.
Eventually, though, Horn's daughter grew up, and the singer decided to expand her horizons. She began making records and playing festivals again, and word quickly spread about her spectacular voice and peerless interpretive skills. Her 1991 album, "You Won't Forget Me," topped the Billboard jazz charts and earned her a Grammy nomination, and its follow-up, "Here's to Life," repeated the process in '92.
Where does that leave her for 1993? "Do you know what a catbird is?" she asks, over the phone from her Washington home. "I don't either, but because I've sold a lot of records, a guy at the record company told me, 'You're in the catbird seat.' I can do what I want to do."
Horn likes being in that seat, too. "It's nice," she agrees. But ask her how she got there, and she just laughs.
"I don't have the slightest idea," she says. "There were some songs I wanted to put down, and PolyGram came to me and said, 'OK.' But it seemed to have boomeranged, and I'm involved in so much madness. I never had so much success before. It has kind of overwhelmed me."
Take her Grammy nominations, for example. Not being much for award shows, Horn paid little mind upon hearing that "You Won't Forget Me" had been nominated for a jazz vocal Grammy. "I never really looked at that kind of stuff on television. I'm not into that," she says.
"But my friends were all excited. 'Oh, you got a nomination. What does it mean?' It just meant that I went to New York and it was a nasty, cold day, and there were a lot of people with no clothes on."
Things were a little different this year, when "Here's to Life" netted two nominations (Johnny Mandel won the award for best vocal arrangement for his work on the album). "It was in California," she says. "A lot of people getting together, a lot of food and booze and a lot of people being seen and what have you. I get enough of that in the concert halls and in the nightclubs."
Speaking of concert halls, Horn says she has seen more than her share of those over the past few years. "I'm just about festivaled out," she says. "I really had to slow down because I'm not getting any younger, and it's not fun having to pack and unpack, changing not only towns but countries.
"I did so many things the year before last, the doctor said, 'If you don't slow down, you're going to die.' Because the road is rough, it's very rough. To give you an example, the year before last, we did six festivals in Canada, came home for eight hours, caught a plane and went to Japan for three weeks. Then from Japan, we came home for, I think, maybe three or four hours, changed suitcases, and it was out to California.
"You get to the point you don't know who you are, where you are, what the date is, or even what time it is. I don't like it."
What Horn does like, apart from making music, is staying home. "I'm really a homebody," she admits. "John Levey, who is my dear friend and was my manager for many years . . . says I've got a very strong rubber band. I always want to go home.
"I just don't have quite enough time here. I'm a great builder. I used to do a lot of building. In fact, I built this room on the back of my house. I'm quite a carpenter. I love to cook, and I love my flowers, my plants. Now, my daughter's coming to check the plants when I'm gone and can't do it myself.
"I don't get to talk to them as much. That may sound silly, but I do miss my plants."
Still, Horn doesn't mind having to travel and record, provided it doesn't turn making music into an unenjoyable task. "Whenever music becomes a job, it's time to give it up," she says. "And when it starts to become a job, that's when you see yourself having to get to know a part of this -- I'm not going to use the dirty word -- part of this business which is really a trip.
"I detest the business," she adds. "I just want to make some music -- make some nice sounds. And I'm very appreciative that people really like my music now."
What: The St. James Giants in Jazz Fest, with Shirley Horn, Jimmy Heath, Donald Byrd, Slide Hampton, Monty Alexander, Bob Cranshaw and Kenny Washington, with special guest Milt Jackson
When: Saturday at 8 p.m.
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
Tickets: $25 and $30 for terrace, $55 for grand tier box, $40 grand tier center, $45 and $40 for orchestra seats; proceeds to benefit the St. James Academy
PD Call: (410) 462-4438 for information, (410) 783-8000 for tickets