Shirley Horn, a jazz pianist and vocalist who gave up a promising career to raise her daughter only to return to considerable acclaim as a master song interpreter, died Thursday in her native Washington, D.C., after a long illness. She was 71.
Horn got her start opening for Miles Davis and, during his life, the trumpeter made only one exception to his vow to never appear as a sideman on other musician’s recording. Davis appeared on her 1990 album “You Won’t Forget Me,” 30 years after the two shared a bill at New York’s Village Vanguard.
She started playing the piano when she was a child, and had a jazz trio while attending Howard University that led to Quincy Jones helping her land at Mercury Records. She made two albums for the label, including 1965’s “Traveling Light,” which would not be followed up until 1978 when she started recording for the Denmark-based SteepleChase.
Like several other forgotten R&B and jazz performers, Ruth Brown and Charles Brown among them, she was booked into Hollywood’s Vine Street Bar & Grill in the mid- to late-1980s, leading to a career renaissance. She was signed to Verve Records and albums released in 1990 and ’91 — “You Won’t Forget Me,” “Here’s to Life” and “Shirley Horn With Strings” — were heavily promoted through her global touring. She won a Grammy in 1998 for jazz vocal performance for her album “I Remember Miles.”
Horn would make a dozen studio albums for Verve between 1988 and 2003 and her ballad-heavy style was often compared to Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae. Her admirers included singers such as Joni Mitchell and Neil Finn of Crowded House.
Horn had suffered from diabetes and had a leg amputated in 2004, but she continued to perform in a wheelchair and use a pianist.
Last year, Horn was honored by National Endowment for the Arts as a jazz master. Other honors include a 2003 Jazz at Lincoln Center Award for Artistic Excellence and an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music.