How to Take It Slow
Following the rhythm of Shirley Horn
By Lauren Du Graf
Shirley Horn in a publicity shot, 1960
There’s slow, and then there’s Shirley Horn slow.
Shirley was a gifted pianist and a jazz singer, a master interpreter of ballads that, in her hands, achieved magnificent gravity through the point-counterpoint of dusky-timbred vocals and spare, sophisticated accompaniment, imbued with the impressionistic colors of the Debussy and Rachmaninoff she had devoted herself to in her youth.
But mostly, it was tempo that distinguished Shirley, a sense of time so elastic, so languorous that the white spaces in between the notes constituted canvases of their own. Listen to her version of “If I Should Lose You” from At the Gaslight Square, a live recording made in St. Louis in 1961. As many standards do, the song teeters on eye-rolling, codependent excess:
Her version clocks in at just over thirty BPM—a rate that, were you to set your pulse to it, might cause you to faint. Her phrasing is unhurried, casual to the point of inwardness. She sings so far behind the beat that when she begins a phrase, there’s something like the subtle shock of a near miss, like a champagne flute caught right before it shatters on a granite floor. Her use of space—ellipses, commas, and periods—loads each phrase with suspense and subtext, luring the listener into a dimension of language and time in which meaning unfurls not as a series of words strung together, but as a study in how words can hang in the air, developing over time like a photograph in a darkroom.
I have spent many hours getting lost inside of Shirley Horn’s pauses, staring into the void, tuning in to echoes of the past. I have learned not to listen to too much Shirley, or I might succumb to an afternoon in bed, a sentiment invited by songs like “A Lazy Afternoon.”
Shirley’s life unfolded like one of her ballads, set to her own gradual rhythm. Born May 1, 1934, in Washington, D.C., Shirley was a shy child, reluctant to leave the house despite her mother’s exhortations. She spent most of her years in the Woodridge neighborhood in the northeast area of the city, settling a ten-minute drive from the house in which she was raised, not far from the Ivy City home in which her own mother grew up. A lifelong homebody, for many of her prime career years, she stayed in D.C., all but disappearing from major stages on the jazz circuit, focused on being a present mother to her daughter. For a time, Baltimore was about the limit. She could drive back home after a gig. She had a strong rubber band, she said.
D.C. is an extraordinarily fertile town for jazz, and was especially so as Shirley came of age in her early twenties, when, in 1957, it became the first U.S. city with a majority black population, earning it the nickname “Chocolate City.” A constellation of clubs—both white- and black-owned—drew national acts and cultivated local talent. There was Olivia Davis’s Patio Lounge on Seventh and T around the corner from the Howard Theater; the Pigfoot in Brookland; the Spotlitle on Rhode Island, where Miles Davis and Ahmad Jamal recorded live albums; and Bohemian Caverns on U Street, an underground club whose predecessor, Crystal Caverns, was one of the first jazz clubs in the country, sited on D.C.’s famed U Street corridor, referred to as “Black Broadway” for its profusion of black-owned businesses. Duke Ellington, Dr. Billy Taylor, and the great drummers Jimmy Cobb and Billy Hart had all grown up in the capital but had all made their careers beyond it. It was (and remains) unheard of for a musician of Shirley’s stature to reside in D.C., avoiding the pull of Los Angeles and New York for as long as she did. Perhaps the same sensitivity that disposed her to find the marrow of a song that made it necessary for her to insulate herself from the tempests of the business.
It was Shirley’s grandmother, an organist at a nearby Baptist church, who first noticed Shirley’s attraction to the piano, which surfaced before she could read or write. At her grandmother’s urging, Shirley began piano lessons at age four. At age twelve, she began to study classical piano at Howard University, as one of the first students in its junior division, supported by her uncle I. B. Horn, who funded Shirley’s studies. (“My uncle, who was a very rich doctor here in town, went to Howard University and started the junior school of music because there were no teachers left who could teach me anything,” said Shirley. “I went to school and then I went to Howard University every day.”)
At Howard, she was taught by Dr. Frances Hughes, who recalled being intimidated by Shirley’s preternatural musical aptitude. “Everything at all that I asked her to do, or that I tested her in, she did it, still with that innocent look on her face. And it really made me nervous.” Dr. Hughes called up Madeline Coleman, a widely admired teacher and then the head of the theory department at Howard’s School of Music, thinking Shirley might be better in her hands. “You keep her,” replied Dr. Coleman. “One day she’ll make you proud.” (Years later, Shirley would describe Dr. Hughes as the “number one lady in my life.”)
Around that time, Shirley also discovered Erroll Garner. She described her first encounter with his song “Penthouse Serenade” in synesthetic terms: “I had a porch off of my bedroom, and I would see the flowers, and I’d hear him. He was caressing the flowers. It was just, baby, it was stroke the pussy willow.” Soon, Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal replaced the classical masters she studied in school. “Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninoff and Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy,” she said.
Her lessons at Howard continued until she was eighteen, when her uncle passed away. (“I was eighteen; Uncle I. B. died. And that was the end.”) Dr. Hughes had lobbied for Shirley’s admission to Juilliard, but Shirley declined the offer, ostensibly because her family couldn’t afford to send her there. But Shirley’s musical attention had already begun to drift, her feeling for jazz tearing at the seams of her classical education. Although Howard would eventually emerge as a leading school for jazz education, in the 1950s, playing jazz could be grounds for expulsion. Already, she had been warned that her playing was “too avant-garde.”
Unbeknownst to her parents, Shirley had begun to play in local clubs, including Abart’s on 9th. Olivia’s Patio Lounge, and the Merry-Land Club, a small storefront bar near 14th and L that had once hosted Pearl Bailey, Earl “Fatha” Hines, and Art Tatum. Billy Hart, who first met her as a teenager, recalls saving up his allowance every week to see her perform, captivated by her presence. “I thought she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen,” he said. By all accounts, Shirley mesmerized on the bandstand. In a yearbook photo, she is chicly accessorized, her complexion light like Lena Horne, her face framed by bangs and a chin-length bob.
One patron at the Merry-Land Club was an older gentleman who would come in, tip his hat, and leave. He arrived one night with a giant turquoise stuffed bear, passing along a note to ask if she knew the song “Melancholy Baby.” The bear was hers to keep if she would sing it. And so she did.
Before that night, Shirley had sung some at church, but performed only as a pianist. After she sang that evening, her boss told her she could earn more money as a singer. So singing became a permanent part of her act. She kept the bear in her attic for years.
Shirley Horn, 1960 © Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Throughout her career, Shirley would often be thought of as a vocalist, a slight that would cause her to feel like an essential aspect of her artistry was rendered invisible. It wasn’t uncommon for singers to accompany themselves on piano. But Shirley’s seamless integration of voice and piano was a marvel to the practitioners who understood what she was up to. Like Nat King Cole, Shirley’s piano playing dazzled as much as—if not more than—her singing. “It’s almost as if when Shirley plays, she has two brains,” said Johnny Mandel, who scored the arrangements on her best-known album, Here’s to Life, which earned him a Grammy. “I don’t know how she can play what she plays and sing what she sings.… Playing piano like that is a very complex undertaking, and singing with that amount of sensitivity and concentration—she sounds like Siamese twins.” The piano was so integral to her sense of herself as a performer that, in later years when she was called upon to sing without a piano, she liked being near one just so she could touch her hands to it, even when she wasn’t playing it. “You know, just to be able to put my hands somewhere. It’s kind of strange, isn’t it?”
Shirley’s seamless integration of voice and piano was a marvel to the practitioners who understood what she was up to.
At the piano, Shirley could exert control, conducting the pace, delivering spare, spacious harmonies that perfectly suited her vision. “Nobody knows how to play for me except me,” she said. “I need to hear my own chords and set my own tempo.” Rather than sheet music, she carried around half a dozen spiral notebooks with lyrics and chords written out by the letter. Without a time signature staring her down, she could approach a song with a more flexible sense of time and delve more deeply into lyrics.
To play with Shirley, you had to follow her lead absolutely, intuiting the faintest hint of a downbeat or pause for however many heaving commas she might insert into a phrase. She needed players who were flexible, able to both swing hard and go as slowly as she wanted without dragging or racing ahead, which is more difficult than it sounds. “I’ve never known anyone who could do a ballad that slowly and keep it musical, keep it happening,” said pianist Marian McPartland of Shirley’s exceptional ability to keep the energy inside of a song that moved at a snail’s pace. The singer Carmen McRae esteemed Shirley’s connection with her bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams so much that she hired the trio to serve as the rhythm section on one of her own albums, employing Shirley just as a pianist, not as a vocalist.
As for Shirley’s voice, it didn’t dazzle by fireworks. She wasn’t a bluesy belter like Dinah, a scatting acrobat like Ella or Sarah. You might compare her capacity for emotion and unruly sense of time to Billie Holiday, her spare rhythmic syncopation to Peggy Lee, her behind-the-beat phrasing to Jimmy Scott. But the magic of Shirley’s voice disclosed itself in its own, distinctly intimate way, as if revealing a secret. “She doesn’t sound like any of our great women singers. She sounds like Shirley,” said Dr. Hughes.
By the mid-to-late 1950s, Shirley’s solo career was well established in D.C. Her trio was one of the first acts to regularly feature when Bohemian Caverns rebranded. (The basement jazz club closed for good in 2019.) Its promoter Tony Taylor, then co-owner of the club, felt it was time for Shirley to take the next step and encouraged her to go to New York City and cut a record. But Shirley was reluctant.
“He says, ‘You ought to be recording.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to do anything. Whoever wants to see me will come to Washington.’ And I really didn’t think about recording ’cause I was happy playing the music.”
Her debut studio album Embers and Ashes: Songs of Lost Love Sung by Shirley Horn appeared in 1960, when Shirley was twenty-six. The record found its way to Miles Davis, whose Kind of Blue had just been released in the summer of 1959. Miles had always had an ear for singers, developing his style of phrasing by studying them. “Singers: they get the most out of a melody,” he said. His own tone on the trumpet, especially in the upper register, could resemble a female voice.
To hear him tell it, Miles Davis loved women. But he wasn’t always kind to them. It was uncommon for him to back a singer—especially a female singer. “I told him I didn’t play behind no girl singer,” he recalled of the time Max Gordon, owner of the Village Vanguard, asked him to play behind a young Barbra Streisand.
But Shirley could hardly be dismissed as a girl singer, and Miles knew it. “Shirley Horn, I want you to come to New York,” said Miles, calling her out of the blue at her mother-in-law’s house in Virginia. She recalled a sense of irritatation at the interruption to her dinner of fried chicken, red-eye gravy, and buttermilk biscuits, thinking the call must be a prank, perhaps somebody pretending to be Miles Davis. But it was Miles, and he was serious. “There’s some people I think you should meet,” he said. He invited her to his house in New York City. To show he was serious, he prompted his children to sing songs off of Embers and Ashes, proof that the album was in rotation at the Davis home.
He had aesthetic reasons for admiring Shirley; he liked her chord voicings and the way she could play and sing together (he respected singers who could accompany themselves well, like Leontyne Price). He especially loved her use of space, which mirrored his own airy style that he had begun to develop in the 1950s, when he had grown to favor melodic understatement, lyricism, and the light, spacious touch of musicians like Ahmad Jamal rather than the rapid arpeggiating of his bebop mentors, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.
Their roots were also entwined in East St. Louis, where Miles grew up. Shirley’s father’s people were from the city, and Shirley’s Aunt Cleo had been Miles’s teacher; he described her as “the roughest bitch in the world.” (“She was not mean,” said Shirley, who grew up visiting Aunt Cleo in the summers. “She was factual, you know.”)
In 1961, Miles insisted that Shirley join him as an opening act for a multi-week run (“I worked six days a week, I don’t remember how many weeks,” she recalled) at the Village Vanguard. Max Gordon, the owner of the Vanguard, had never heard of her before. But Miles was adamant. “If she don’t play, I ain’t gonna play,” he told Gordon.
At the Vanguard, Miles guarded Shirley carefully. He told her not to talk to certain individuals and forbade her from sitting at the bar. She loved to smoke cigarettes and drink beer, but there would be only one cigarette a night and no beer, he said. Concerned that she was gaining weight, he insisted that she forgo fatty foods and eat veal instead. He instructed her to work out using exercise equipment in his basement.
“I was so excited and nervous,” she later recalled. It was one of those star-making moments, being anointed by Miles and playing with him at the Vanguard. “It was like being in a fantasyland because every night there was something to look forward to: seeing another person’s face I had on a record. Miles would introduce me to all these people.”
The famous faces in the crowd included Lena Horne, Claudia McNeil, and Sidney Poitier. “I was passing the bar and Sidney Poitier stopped me and asked, ‘Miss Horn, would you like to have a drink?’ I was so thrilled, I almost fainted.”
She even sat in with Miles’s band, although she had to be tricked into doing it, given her nerves. “Wynton [Kelly] said ‘I hurt my hand! Sit in with me for a minute.’ He was playing a blues. I’m sitting right in front and he fooled me. So, I went up there and got behind the guys. And everybody applauded. ‘Oh Lord, what am I going to do?’ But I finally brightened up. Miles wanted me to do the second tune and then I had to come off. There was nobody against me, but I was scared, simple as that. Everybody on the stage was a giant. Everybody in the audience, I know from records. I felt too much pressure.”
Quincy Jones, then an executive at Mercury Records, was in the audience at the Vanguard, too. The following year, he signed her to her first major label contract, producing albums for her and weaving lush arrangements to frame her vocals in soundtracks, including A Dandy in Aspic and For Love of Ivy, a film that starred Poitier. Quincy also produced a few albums for Shirley that were released on Mercury (although John Levy, Shirley’s manager at the time, reported that Quincy himself didn’t show up for the sessions). Soon, she had gigs lined up all over the country.
If Shirley’s music was taking her places, she was not a fan of change. She was drawn to the comfortable, an adjective that, for her, was synonymous with good. Her world was defined by habits and rituals that helped her clarify her context, giving her maximum control. She loved Pall Mall cigarettes and Heineken over ice with Drambuie on the side. (“I like the sweet stuff,” said Shirley, who developed diabetes, resulting in amputation of part of her right leg, and her eventual death.) The hotels she preferred were the ones that had good TV reception and understood that she traveled with a pressure cooker to make greens wherever she went. As the years wore on, she grew accustomed to her “stories”: the soap operas (The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, Guiding Light, As the World Turns) and old movies she kept on TV late at night. Sometimes a song from an old movie would work its way into her shows.
On occasion, she was asked to record with an all-star rhythm section (“politicking,” she called it). Some recordings featured lush orchestration, the pinnacle of which was her 1992 album Here’s to Life, named for the title track, a sprawling carpe diem ode that winks at mortality. But she preferred musicians she was familiar with, many of whom were from D.C. There was Buck Hill, a tenor saxophonist who never quit his day job as a postal worker. He had been one of the first musicians to let Shirley sit in when she was getting going on the scene, and she never forgot it. Over the course of four decades, she played and recorded with drummer Billy Hart, whom she first encountered as a neighbor, when his grandmother lived across the hall from Shirley’s apartment. He would go on to be one of the most in-demand jazz drummers of his generation, appearing on Miles Davis’s seminal On the Corner and becoming an integral member of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band. She had been one of the first to take a chance on him, letting him sit in with her band when he was just getting started on the D.C. scene, bringing him on the road when he was still in college. (He would describe her as “my most important teacher”; “The lessons she provided me were non pareil,” he said. “It was like playing with three different people, somewhere between Langston Hughes and William Shakespeare and Duke Ellington. It was like a big band.”)
She played with the same trio for decades, with Steve Williams on drums and Charles Ables on bass, her deepest and most enduring collaboration. Ables, a D.C. native who was first a guitarist before learning electric bass just so he could take a position in her trio, stayed with her for more than thirty years, until his death. Williams, who remained part of her trio for twenty-three years, described his connection to Shirley in the deepest of terms. “We’re definitely soulmates, if you can describe the experience or the relationship between two, three people, whatever, where there is very little conversation about why you’re doing what you’re doing,” he said. “You just know, you understand.”
Shirley had married young and remained married for nearly fifty years to Sheppard “Shep” Deering, a mechanic for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. He was the first man she dated. In interviews, he surfaces as a quiet, supportive presence, refilling a drink, lighting a cigarette, picking her up from a gig. (“I never met him,” said Billy, noting how she seemed to keep that part of her life separate.)
Married though she was, she never pretended to deny herself the varied pleasures and intimacies furnished by music. When Shirley talked about the feeling of her trio in the highest form, she spoke of sex. Nothing pornographic or vulgar, not even lustful. What she was after was an intuitive connection, the experience of beings merging, dissolving into each other. She described the feeling of “melt[ing] together musically” as “like the best sex ever.”
To push the emotional or romantic limits of sound, erotically transgressing boundaries of the individual, is not a terribly controversial aim for a musician, particularly in group improvisation, where players regularly plumb their depths to dig up something raw and naked, intuiting what the moment needs. Miles Davis once compared playing with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker to having an orgasm. Such statements have since fallen out of fashion. Consider, for example, the outrage provoked by Robert Glasper’s 2017 metaphorical evocation of the “musical clitoris” in his discussion of a perceived female preference for groove music over soloing. “When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like a musical clitoris,” he told pianist Ethan Iverson. “You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.” Glasper’s remarks went viral, widely regarded as sexist, an underhanded denigration of the female ability to understand complex music and a “one-sided construction of female eroticism,” wrote Michelle Mercer.
But Shirley’s evocation of sex was absent of gendered norms, even absent of a physical body. It was a way to describe how she got to the wordless, non-corporeal place where she could lose herself: “Sometimes when it’s really good, it’s like having sex, you know. We breathe together. We move as one. And that’s when you get the goose pimples and you don’t know how to get out of a song. You step inside.” To Shirley, “stepping inside” could dissolve time: “It’s hard to explain but we’re oblivious,” she said. “We’re three people playing as one, and sometimes it’s like a sexual experience. I get completely lost and I can go on and on and not realize what time is all about.”
As for Shirley’s connection to Miles, “He loved me and I loved him.” She described their relationship as very close spiritually. Was she attracted to him? Yes, she told an interviewer in a documentary, although she brushed off another journalist’s suggestion that she and Miles were intimate. “One woman wanted to know ‘Did you and Miles Davis have an affair?’ Can you believe it? I wanted to tell her yes, you know? It was stupid, so I just smiled at her.”
In the sixties, the tides of popular music were rapidly shifting, and there was perhaps no artist evolving as quickly as Miles, who had begun to go off in new directions musically, in dialogue with the free jazz of Ornette Coleman, the rock & roll of Jimi Hendrix, and the funk of Sly Stone. He sought out younger musicians like Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter to be in his band. The popular magnitude of Kind of Blue had been eclipsed by Motown, the Beatles, and James Brown.
For Shirley, this was the “beginning of bad times.” Her heart wasn’t in it anymore. Mercury let her contract lapse. In 1964, her grandmother passed away and she returned to Washington for good. Life on the road had proved to be too much. “It got kind of airy when she walked out on a New Year’s Eve gig in Pittsburgh,” recalled her former manager John Levy. “She just picked up and went home. Did the same thing in California, when she had a six-week engagement and did only four before heading home.”
“I got married, had a baby. I tried to make the scene, but I was torn between my love for my child and, not what you call duty…but I came from a very old-fashioned family where a woman’s place was in the home.…I never got out of music, but I got more into working around the house, and the time wasn’t right for my kind of music. There were different tugs, directions, depression. The music wasn’t always right when I did play.”
She settled on a leafy residential street of single-family homes with big yards. She focused on raising her daughter and continued to perform locally, in the smaller intimate settings she preferred, like The Place Where Louis Dwells, One Step Down, and Pigfoot, a club that was owned by her neighbor, guitarist Bill Harris. In fifteen years, she recorded only two albums.
Her career very well could have faded out quietly. But one Friday in the late 1970s, she got a call from Billy, who asked if she’d consider making a record for the Danish label Steeplechase. By Sunday, Shep was driving her up I-95 to New York for a session with Billy and the bassist Buster Williams, another one of Miles’s former collaborators and one of Billy’s best friends. On the way there, she asked Shep to drive slowly so she could figure out what songs to record.
The resulting album, A Lazy Afternoon (1979), earned five stars in Downbeat. A few years later, she caught another lucky break when someone spotted Shirley, her bassist, and her drummer in the crowd at a JazzTimesconvention in D.C., and invited them to give an impromptu performance. A promoter for the North Sea Jazz Festival happened to be in the audience and invited her overseas on the spot.
Her trip to The Hague ignited her European fan base. “Even though I had faithful friends here, I had to go to Europe to see how great it is to be loved and admired, appreciated and respected,” she said. “I think it comes at a good time in my life. I realize now that music is a hard business. I’m not full of wide-eyed enthusiasm like I was a few years back. Everybody asks, ‘Are you ready for it?’ No, I’m not. But I’m grateful. I’m happy that the time is right for me.”
In 1988, at age fifty-four, she finally got the attention of Verve, recording her first major label album in more than twenty years. No longer a young woman, she cut a more mature profile on album covers and in press photos (“She kind of looks like a stern auntie,” observed my friend Faith), though her sly smile and discerning gaze remained.
Drummer Steve Williams, Shirley Horn, and bassist Charles Ables. Courtesy Library of Congress.
A string of critically acclaimed albums followed, including 1991’s You Won’t Forget Me, which garnered a rare guest appearance from Miles, who, despite his demanding schedule and health problems, found the time to make her studio date, appearing on the album’s title track. He had not appeared on a singer’s album in decades.
Miles died later that year. “Part of me was gone when he died; he was so dear. We loved each other. We loved the person in the music. And he left me! Jive turkey. Did you know he was going to record some more songs with me?”
Three of her records for Verve in the 1990s hit number one on the Billboard jazz charts, with Here’s to Lifespending sixteen weeks on top. In 1998, at age sixty-four, she took home her first and only Grammy for I Remember Miles, a tribute album to Miles Davis. Shortly before her death in 2005, she was recognized as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment of the Arts and was toasted at a gala at the Kennedy Center, institutions that had come to define the city’s cultural infrastructure, a far cry from the D.C. of her youth, when she had to keep her jazz chords hidden from her teachers at Howard.
I ended my reporting in front of Shirley’s home on Lawrence Street, a quiet, tree-lined stretch of comfortably scaled, single-family homes. She used the money that flowed in during her later years to build several additions to the house, undertaking much of the construction herself, having picked up some carpentry skills from her uncles. Her house tripled in size to nearly four thousand square feet, and she joked that the D.C. government was threatening to deny her any more permits. She finally had enough space for a grand piano. You can hear it on one of her last albums, The Main Ingredient, which she recorded at home. She gathered her favorite musicians— including Billy Hart, Buck Hill, and her trio partners Steve Williams and Charles Ables—to play, cooking in between takes.
Driving up to the house, I beheld the spacious yard, noting the sycamore trees and crepe myrtles gracefully providing shade. I wondered which features of the home were additions that Shirley built herself. Perhaps I could knock on the door and get a look at it from the inside. But it was time to go; I was late on a deadline.