January 1, 1970A slow week this week, and I'm off for a wedding on the Cape, so this is going out a day early ...
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Performing helps Horn put hard times behind
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | June 11, 2004
Singer and pianist Shirley Horn has fought her way through tough times recently.
Three years ago, she lost her right foot to diabetes, which, at least temporarily, rendered her incapable of accompanying herself on the piano. Then, that same year, she lost her bassist of more than three decades, Charles Ables.
"It was rough," Horn, 70, acknowledges, by phone from her suburban Maryland home. "I lost the foot right before Charles passed, and I think I grieved more for Charles than I did for the foot. It was like losing a part of me."
The trio she'll have backing her at Scullers this weekend is, by Horn's standards, a tad wet behind the ears, even though they backed her on last year's Grammy-nominated "May the Music Never End." Steve Williams has played drums for her nearly a quarter-century. Ables has been replaced by Ed Howard, a veteran sideman to Roy Haynes, Clifford Jordan, and others. And George Mesterhazy has been filling in for Horn on piano.
Boston-based vocalist Rebecca Parris — who'll be performing at the Regattabar tomorrow night — introduced Mesterhazy to Horn. "He really has studied her a great deal," Parris says, "so he was a real natural choice to be her accompanist when she couldn't play. He's amazing."
If it seems logical that having someone else handle the piano chores would make Horn's life easier, think again.
"It's harder," Horn says. "I'm my best accompanist, because only I know which way I'm going. You know, it becomes automatic."
As much as she admires Mesterhazy's playing, Horn knows he'll never be as in sync with her singing as she was herself. "I'm going one way, down one alley, [and] he's going another," she says. "He does very well with me, but I'm not totally satisfied."
Horn launched her career, after all, as a pianist. She began studying the instrument at age 4 and continued from age 11 on at Howard University — first in an after-school program and later as a full-time college student after declining scholarships to Oberlin and Juilliard because her mother wanted her closer to home.
Her interest in jazz came along around 12. "Erroll Garner came out with a song called `Penthouse Serenade,' and that was a big hit," she recalls. She would earn money playing piano for Sunday school and church, then spend it on Garner records, which she learned note for note. Eventually, Garner was supplanted by two other favorites: Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson.
Her first album, "Embers and Ashes," appeared in 1960, and Miles Davis liked it so much he insisted on having Horn open for him that year at the Village Vanguard. Other albums followed, including collaborations with Quincy Jones, but by this time, Horn had become a mother, which limited her touring.
Horn's career didn't hit full stride again until Verve Records signed her in the late '80s. Since then, nine consecutive CDs have been nominated for Grammys, with Horn winning best jazz vocal performance in 1998 for "I Remember Miles."
In recent years, she's managed to talk two old friends into accompanying her on CDs. Davis played the title tune on Horn's 1991 disc "You Won't Forget Me." Jamal was persuaded to accompany her on two tracks of "May the Music Never End," and a while back Horn played with her other piano hero, Peterson, at Alice Tully Hall.
Horn, meanwhile, hopes to take a seat at the piano again soon. She's been working with a prosthetic device she hopes will eventually allow her to do so. "When you've been playing piano and singing all your life, it's still quite an adjustment" not to, she says. "I want to play the piano again."
Tapping and taping Tanglewood's Labor Day weekend jazz festival has added a couple of acts to its previously announced Sept. 4 lineup. Tony-winning dancer Savion Glover and tap master Jimmy Slyde will star in an all-tap jazz program to music by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and others. And teenage piano prodigy Taylor Eigsti will be Marian McPartland's guest for a live taping that afternoon of "Piano Jazz."
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company