I never worked with Shirley Horn other than during three sailings of The Floating Jazz Festival, in 1996, 1998 and 1999, and it was always under the same circumstances, with her trio. Shirley’s trio was beautifully balanced, almost like an elegant chamber group with soft vocals added.
I’ve never been a big fan of soft, whispery vocalists. Shirley was this kind of singer throughout her career, but somehow it worked with her and nothing was more enjoyable than sitting in the back of one of the rooms on the ship, late at night, after all the panic of the day was over, and enjoying half a dozen quiet songs, impeccably played, whether slow, slow ballads or lightly swinging standards with perfectly phrased vocals. Shirley wasn’t a big fan of anything too loud and she certainly wasn’t about to insert rock “ballads” or anything else that veered too far from the American songbook into her repertory. She didn’t have to.
Strange at it seems, even though I had some LPs and most of the CDs she’d released since the late 1980s, I never heard Shirley in person until her concert in the Saga Theater that opened the 14th Annual Floating Jazz Festival in 1996. I’ve subsequently learned that she was active in Washington, D.C. when I was in that city in the early and mid-1960s, but for whatever reason I never heard her there or was even aware she was performing. I was too involved with blues singers and whoever was playing in Blues Alley, and it’s a pity I missed her.
The concert in the Saga Theater, however, was a good way to start. She may have played a tune or two from her latest CD, The Main Ingredient, but I don’t really remember exactly what tunes she played, just the mood she created in the darkened theater. It isn’t hard to remember Charles Ables accompanied her on electric bass and Steve Williams on drums.
Each time Shirley returned to the S/S Norway or Queen Elizabeth 2, these guys were with her, as they had been for a couple of decades. Somewhere along the line I was told that even though Ables and Williams seemed to communicate perfectly on stage and provide perfect accompaniment for Shirley, that off stage, they hadn’t spoken to one another in over a decade or more. That was just one additional element of mystery in what seemed to be a mysterious group. I don’t know if Shirley’s two accompanists were assigned to the same table in the dinning room, but if there were I guess it was pretty quiet.
Shirley was not without her own eccentricities, which may have been the result of her many health problems. She always seemed fragile, moved very slowly, and seemed older that she was, at least in terms of years. I remember one time I found her practicing on the S/S Norway, and much to my surprise, she was wearing gloves. But just as though I never saw any other pianist practicing wearing gloves, I never heard anyone who ever sounded like Shirley Horn, either as a pianist or a vocalist. She was utterly unique, there was no mistaking who was playing or singing, and though she might have been an acquired taste, once acquired it stuck with you. In an era where instrumentalists and vocalists alike have a hard time finding their own identity, Shirley’s was secure.
In 1999 I undertook a recording project aboard Queen Elizabeth 2. I wanted to feature Clark Terry with his quintet and to have quest appearances by the four female vocalists on board, Carrie Smith, Vanessa Rubin, Etta Jones and Shirley Horn. It was difficult to juggle all the performances and artists, but we managed to get the first three recorded. Only Shirley remained, but she wasn’t moving very quickly. She had her performances to worry about and had to get around the ship in a wheel chair.
It came down to the last night that Clark was scheduled to perform. Actually, the last set on that last night, the last song of the last set. Shirley was sitting down front in her wheelchair, but with a lot of effort on her part and a couple of strong helpers, she managed to get on stage to the piano. There’d been no rehearsal, not even an idea what she might play with Clark.
The two old friends conferred for about a second, Shirley played a few chords, Clark put the mute in his horn and But Beautiful jumped out. It was magic moment. He played a chorus, Shirley sang a couple, Clark played another and the band had the good sense to lay out, just Shirley and Clark for eight minutes. It was a perfect performance; the only thing that was wrong was they didn’t do a second tune. I left a little of their banter on the CD because it showed very pleased they were with what they’d done.
A couple of nights later, as we steamed towards Southampton, Shirley performed with her trio in The Grand Lounge. It had been a day full of problems and I was probably walking through the balcony to solve some late night crisis. I stopped for a moment and listened. Then I listened to another song, felt better, took a couple of snapshots and left to solve the problem. I never heard her live again.
Shirley Horn, Queen Elizabeth 2 Grand Lounge, At Sea, November 10, 1999