Shirley Horn holds a cigarette to her lips between gloved fingers. She drags on it deeply, slowly. And when that one is done, she lights another. And another. And another until the pack is empty. Then she calls out to her quiet husband of 49 years, Shep Deering, for more Pall Malls, which he promptly retrieves from another room.
The Grammy-winning jazz singer-pianist sits at a card table inside her sparsely furnished living room - surrounded by freshly painted ivory walls, plush Kelly green carpet underfoot. Horn is in a motorized wheelchair, her "Cadillac," as she calls it. She has been using it since she lost her right foot to diabetes three years ago.
Because her old home in southwest Washington, D.C., had too many steps, Horn and her husband moved last September to this comfortable, stair-free red-brick house, which sits atop a sylvan hill in Upper Marlboro.
On Saturday evening, the Kennedy Center will present a special tribute concert honoring Horn's 50-year career. Her affecting, molasses-slow way with a ballad and impressionistic piano playing have secured her a cultlike international fan base. Dee Dee Bridgewater, Regina Carter, Lizz Wright, Stefon Harris and others are scheduled to perform with the shy, creamy-skinned woman who doesn't like to discuss her age.
"My age?" she asks, laughing. "Oh, man. I'm 60-something, OK? Next question."
Among Horn's biggest champions early in her career were Miles Davis, who introduced her as a 25-year-old to New York's hip jazz crowd, red-carpet style, in 1961; Quincy Jones, who signed the artist to her first major label contract when he was an executive at Mercury Records; and Carmen McRae, the famously surly jazz legend who revered and befriended the younger artist.
In fact, the native Washing- tonian's acclaim was so wide and immediate in the early '60s, Horn could have been a much bigger star - perhaps on the holy level of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Although Horn enjoyed the attention and recording with such "album cover" musicians as pianist Jimmy Jones and guitarist Kenny Burrell, she had bigger priorities at the time: her husband and her baby daughter, Rainy. So the on-the-verge performer declined many potentially lucrative offers.
Stardom had to wait nearly 30 years.
Horn doesn't like to talk about herself. She's a musician. Period. But one listen to any of her Verve albums, particularly her most popular, Shirley Horn With Strings: Here's to Life from 1992, and you know that she's much more than just a "piano player who sings a little bit." With a ballad, Horn suspends time. The cashmere subtlety of her voice, her economical use of notes, the way she improvises colors and tones is often hypnotic, movingly surreal. But she can swing as hard as she pleases with a rhythmic gait that recalls her heroes: Oscar Peterson and Nat "King" Cole.
"I think the main thing about Shirley is that she believes in telling a story," says Rhonda Hamilton, host of the Pure Jazz channel on Sirius Satellite Radio. The 25-year radio veteran will also host the Kennedy Center tribute. "She takes her time and savors the meaning of every word. Her trademark is taking a tempo exquisitely slow. Not everybody can do that and get to the heart and soul of a song."
Horn, the oldest of three, was a child prodigy who started playing piano at age 4. Her father worked for the CIA; her mother was a homemaker. As a child, Horn was so into music and spent so much time at the piano in the living room that her mother would bribe her to go outside and play with other children.
"I didn't want to play games with the kids outside," says Horn, who talks in a soft, languorous manner, much the way she sings. "All I cared about was the music, you know?"
By age 12, she was studying classical composition at Howard University. Six years later, she won a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York. But the move was too expensive and even then, Horn didn't like the idea of being away from home too long. So she declined the scholarship.
Soon afterward, Horn's focus shifted from classical to jazz. "Penthouse Serenade," a 1949 recording by Erroll Garner, made a deep impression on the young musician. She bought every Garner record she could find and studied his complex, two-handed approach, a technique she would eventually absorb into her own.
Around 1954, when Horn was fresh out of high school, she organized her own trio and played small rooms around D.C. Six years later, she recorded her debut, Embers and Ashes, on the small Stereocraft label. The album wasn't a hit, and it was poorly distributed. But Miles Davis, one of jazz's brightest, most influential stars, heard the record and fell in love with it. The next year, in early 1961, the moody trumpeter sought her out.
Newly married at the time to Deering, a dark-eyed, handsome man she met at D.C.'s Atlas Theatre, Horn was visiting her mother-in-law in Virginia when she received a strange call.
"We were in Danville somewhere out on my mother-in-law's farm," Horn recalls. "The phone rang and it was for me. I didn't know who it was. I said, 'Hello.' " Imitating Davis' raspy voice, she continues: "'Shirley? This is Miles Davis. I got some folks I want you to meet in New York.' I said, 'Who is this?' I thought it was a joke."
Horn mulled over the invitation for a day or so before she went to Davis' home in New York, where she found his children singing the songs on Embers and Ashes. King of New York's jazz scene at the time, Davis had arranged for Horn to share the bill with him at the Village Vanguard, a respected venue in Greenwich Village. It was a prestigious gig for a newcomer like Horn. The club owner, Max Gordon, didn't even know who she was.
"Miles insisted that I play on the bill," Horn says. "If I didn't play, he wasn't gonna play, either."
That evening in 1961 was electric, and "I was scared to death," Horn remembers. For her New York debut, she bought a pale green, off-the-shoulder dress from D.C.'s Garden House boutique. The joint was packed with some of the biggest names in black entertainment at the time. Carmen McRae and Quincy Jones were there. Lena Horne (no relation) "just kinda floated in," Horn says. "She looked like a little red bird. She had on a little red hat and a red cape." Sidney Poitier, star of the just-released movie A Raisin in the Sun, approached Horn after her enthusiastically received set.
"He said, 'Miss Horn, I really enjoyed your music,'" the artist says, her eyes widening at the memory. "And he took my hand and kissed it. Oh, I couldn't believe it. Can you imagine?"
Soon afterward, John Levy, Horn's manager at the time, arranged a meeting with Jones, who signed the singer to Mercury Records. Before the sessions for her major label debut, 1963's demure Loads of Love, the young artist compiled a dream list of musicians she wanted to play on the record, including bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Osie Johnson. Horn had assumed she would accompany herself on piano, something she had always done. But Mercury had different plans.
"They wanted to groom me as a stand-up singer," Horn says. "And I thought, 'This ain't right. I play piano.' I felt so uncomfortable, standing in this little booth singing off the lyric sheets there in front of me."
And Horn received no artistic control on the follow-up album, the big band-oriented Shirley Horn With Horns, also released in 1963. Listening to the albums today, there is the sense of a certain stiffness in Horn's performances.
"Those records were not me," she says flatly.
The Mercury albums put her on the map, though. She traveled extensively in '63, but by that time, she had a baby, Rainy Louise. Although critics praised her music and Levy booked her in nice rooms and supper clubs across the country, Horn hated leaving her child and husband behind.
"I was so lonely on the road," she says. "My love for the music was strong. It is strong. But I learned early that the business is not all roses and glory. I saw a lot of entertainers, especially women, choose one or the other: family or the business. My mother was always home when I was growing up. And I knew my daughter needed me. And I needed her."
So Horn curtailed her touring, an essential means by which jazz artists build their careers and pay the bills. Sometimes she played Baltimore; occasionally, she ventured to New York. She remained in D.C. for the most part, playing lounges and intimate clubs. In the mid '60s, she even flew to Hollywood to sing on two Quincy Jones-produced soundtracks. But Horn was never away from her daughter and Deering, a bus mechanic, for more than a week or so. Meanwhile, the industry had moved on to the Beatles and Motown. The likes of Shirley Horn were all but forgotten.
When Rainy Smith - now the mother of two grown sons, ages 20 and 24 - enters the house, Horn's face brightens. "There's my baby," she says as her daughter crosses the room and pats her mother on the shoulder. Like both her parents, Smith is fair-skinned. Dark, curly hair brushes her shoulders, and a slight Southern twang blows through her sentences.
"Growing up, there were so many musicians around," says Smith, a research analyst for consumer affairs for the Postal Service. "And it all seemed normal to me. It was just my mom: She worked at night playing music. I wasn't aware that there was really anything different about my home life. I do remember it was hard waking my mom up to comb my hair in the mornings."
In the late '70s and into the early '80s - around the time Smith married and left home - Horn returned to recording, releasing five well-regarded albums for the tiny Steeple Chase label. But the artist's star exploded when she signed with Verve in 1987. At the legendary jazz label, for whom she still records, Horn received first-rate treatment: international promotion and distribution. With such albums as I Thought About You (1987) and Close Enough for Love (1989), the press rediscovered the wonder of Horn's style, which really hadn't changed much since the early '60s. Her voice had deepened a bit and age had brought a sharper perspective to her interpretations. She toured the international jazz circuit, filling venues in Paris and Holland.
Steve Williams, a native Washingtonian and Horn's drummer for 25 years, says, "I wish I could see more artists like Shirley who do things based on feeling and the mood of the moment. She's very emotionally attached to her songs. She picks them and means them."
Horn won a Grammy for 1998's I Remember Miles, a tribute album to the man who helped launch her career. Since the amputation, Horn hasn't been able to play the piano. She was accompanied by George Mesterhazy and Ahmad Jamal on her latest album, May the Music Never End, released last June.
"I'm working with a prosthetic foot that will allow me to control the pedals," Horn says. "I miss the piano. But I'll get back to it," she says with a wink. "Yes, I will."
Essential Shirley Horn albums
Travelin' Light (1965): This was the last album Horn put out before retiring from the studio. Released on ABC-Paramount, Ray Charles' recording home at the time, the album is a nice taste of Horn's leisurely style in the early days. "You're BlasM-i" is a highlight.
I Thought About You (1987): A warm, earthy set recorded live at Vine Street Bar and Grill in Hollywood. With strong, nearly telepathic accompaniment by bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams, Horn swings mightily on "The Eagle and Me" and casts a dreamy spell with "Summer (Estate)."
Close Enough for Love (1989): This is perhaps her most balanced Verve set. She beautifully wrings all the sensual nuances out of "I Wanna Be Loved."
Shirley Horn With Strings: Here's to Life (1992): A majestic set with orchestral arrangements by Johnny Mandel. The title track is a sure tear-inducer.
- Rashod Ollison
Tribute to Shirley Horn
Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F. St. N.W., Washington
Time: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $50 (available at the Kennedy Center box office or by calling 202-476-4600)