The Ballads Of Shirley Horn

At long last, a jazz legend gets her due

Shirley Horn was at her mother-in-law's house in Washington the day Miles Davis called. This was 30 years ago, but she remembers that there were buttermilk biscuits and red-eye gravy on the table and that she didn't believe it was really him. She'd recently released "Embers and Ashes," the first collection of her delicately understated piano playing and smoky ballad singing. Davis loved it and wanted her to come to New York and open for him at the Village Vanguard.

She didn't believe it was him, but she came anyway, and when she got to his house, she says, "He had his kids sing me the songs off the 'Embers and Ashes' album." For a charmed period, she picked up such accolades wherever she turned. She played the Vanguard: "Everybody in the world was there. Lena Horne was floating around in a red outfit. Charlie Mingus was standing by the door-biggest man I ever saw. Sidney Poitier came up and said he enjoyed my music." She soon signed a recording contract with Mercury.

It looked like an overnight success story. But only now, at 56--with her deservedly No. 1 album "You Won't Forget Me"--is Horn enjoying the stature that must have seemed within easy reach 30 years ago.

Horn's earliest memory is of the piano in her grandmother's parlor. The room was cold in the winter, and she remembers sitting at the piano's round stool in a heavy coat. At 4, she began lessons on this piano and as a teen studied classical music at Howard University. She later earned a scholarship to Juilliard in New York but couldn't afford to go; only thanks to her uncle, a doctor, could she afford Howard. She picked up jazz on her own, sneaking dinner shows at a place called Olivia's Patio Lounge. With the Vanguard date, she seemed on her way.

But jazz history is full of dreams deferred or shattered. The Mercury records weren't what she'd expected--the label saddled her with big-band arrangements--and she sat out the contract after making two of them. She had a baby. She didn't like touring and didn't like the business. She built a reputation as a piece of work; if she didn't like a crowd, sometimes she'd walk off stage in midset and call a cab home. Though she insists she never retired, she rarely recorded, or played outside of the Beltway area, for much of the '60s and '70s. Since 1981, though, she's made herself more visible, and in the last four years has made three striking albums for Verve. "You Won't Forget Me" makes it easy to hear what attracted Davis to her. Horn barely fingers the edges of her tunes, investing them with space rather than easy melodies. On the proud "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Cryin'," featuring Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, she slows the tempo until each note becomes a statement, each line a surprise. "In my early years," she says, "I listened to a pianist who played a lot of notes, but it just left me cold. Then I heard Miles Davis play one note, and it made all the difference in the world."

Davis adds a solo to the album's title track, the first time he's backed a singer in 20 years. It is a touching show of support, but an extraneous one. Horn's career, come to fruition at its own pace, can now proceed under its own power.