Miles Davis rarely recorded with singers, and the singers he did record with were usually unique talents. Shirley Horn is no exception. Her soft and understated ballad singing, tasteful piano playing and creative interpretations were just as treasured by the late trumpeter as they are envied by jazz musicians today. Yet for decades Horn was one of jazz's best-kept secrets.
Raised in Washington, D.C., Horn studied piano from the age of four, and by 1954 she was performing with her trio in the capitol city. Soon she was also a nightclub owner, running the diplomat hangout The Place Where Louis Dwells. In 1960 she cut her first album, the acclaimed Embers and Ashes. It was that album that made Davis insist Horn open for him at the Village Vanguard in New York City. He also insisted that Horn sit in on his sets, guest appearances that quickly earned her new admirers, including Oscar Peterson, Carmen McRae and Quincy Jones.
After recording a few gems in the early '60s, Horn was faced with the choice of touring the jazz circuit or staying in D.C. to raise her family and run her nightclub. She chose the latter and recorded only sporadically between 1964 and 1980. In fact, she was generally unknown outside of the nation's capitol (jazz fact of life: If you want to be famous, live in New York City, Los Angeles or Europe), until she signed a deal with Verve Records in 1987. The label immediately promoted her to jazz stardom. It wasn't that difficult, really.
Thirty years after bringing Horn to the Village Vanguard, Davis made a guest appearance on her fantastic 1990 album, You Won't Forget Me, and performed with Horn in her native city. Horn, whose sense of space and timing is clearly inspired by Davis, recorded a tribute to the jazz man, 1998's I Remember Miles, and took home a Grammy for her efforts. Today Horn burns the Davis torch as bright as any of his disciples, but she maintains her own strong identity, which influences singers of the next generation. Miles would be proud. The Shirley Horn Trio performs Friday, January 21, at 8 p.m. at the Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Avenue. For ticket information, call Da Camera of Houston at (800)23-DACAM.