Few people in jazz or pop know how to stretch out a ballad the way that Shirley Horn did. What made her music special was how her piano playing relied on what she sang, and visa-versa. Horn's piano filled in just the right amount of space around her vocals, with the silences being essential to her unique sound. That spare, distilled, often-glacial quality owed a lot to the cool 1950s musical world of Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans and Miles Davis. And while it was Davis who first championed Horn's work, his enthusiasm was soon matched by Quincy Jones, who both arranged and produced sessions for her. Even though the quality of Horn's small group and orchestral sets during this time was top-shelf, she never really caught on with the public during the 1960s, mainly because her laid-back, spare and sophisticated style was slightly out of place during an era when black America was embracing tougher, more R&B-fueled jazz. Then, when Horn became a parent, she stopped touring and would only play dates in her native Washington, D.C. During this period, Miles Davis always had her open for him whenever he came to town, and when her children left the nest, it was Davis who helped reintroduce Horn to the jazz community. She went on to cut a series of well-regarded albums for the boutique label Steeple Chase until Verve Records came calling in 1987. Miles Davis backed Horn on the title track to that year's You Won't Forget Me, resulting in her first No. 1 jazz album. Davis died before the two could cut an entire album together,
but Horn would continue racking up No. 1 jazz poll positions and Grammy awards for Verve. While originally Horn had to fight to be able to accompany herself on piano, her finest album may be Here's to Life (1991), an orchestral set she recorded with master arranger/composer Johnny Mandel. Though Shirley Horn could do up-tempo swingers with the best of them, the ballad "Quietly There," from Here's to Life, may best sum up her approach. Shirley Horn valiantly kept performing and recording even as her body was being attacked by diabetes and cancer. Severe illness kept her from playing the piano for her final album, May the Music Never End (2003), a powerful but typically clear-eyed look at love, regret and mortality. Horn passed away in 2005, but not before influencing such followers as Roberta Flack, Diana Krall and Norah Jones, giving her far greater impact on modern music than name recognition would imply.