- The Washington Times - Friday, December 10, 2004

Diabetes robbed her of a foot but not her smooth and pungent singing style. Jazz diva Shirley Horn keeps moving, regardless. Tonight, the Washington native is being honored in a special tribute concert at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.

She still smokes and even has had a bout with cancer, but it’s clear her career is in full swing as she talks over the telephone of projects present and future.

Next weekend she will perform onstage in New Jersey with Ahmad Jamal and Oscar Peterson, two of her renowned peers also still active in the music world. In January, she will tour Singapore and Shanghai — her first time in Asia, where she has always wanted to go, she says — and is hoping to stop off in Japan. A nurse accompanies her on her travels, but that doesn’t seem to slow her down.

She has been in Europe of late but hopes to make her performing home in this country a New York City boite called Le Jazz Au Bar, where she expects to record her first live album early next year for Universal.

There aren’t a lot of places locally where she likes to appear, but she “is trying to work in” a stint at Bohemian Caverns on 14th Street in late February.

“D.C. isn’t a big jazz town. We used to be, when every other place was a joint,” she comments in characteristically succinct fashion, the alto voice low and soft in a way that critics have called “smoky” and “cognac-smooth.”

Long ago, beginning as a teenager, she played matinees at a club called the Merry-Land near 14th and L Streets. She also fondly recalls the original Bohemian Caverns and a now-defunct spot called Olivia’s Patio Lounge not far from the Howard Theater.

Last month, the local-vocalist-made-good received the title of jazz master from the National Endowment for the Arts, an annual honor saluting composers, instrumentalists, vocalists and music promoters. The other recipients were guitarist Kenny Burrell, clarinetist-saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, arranger-composer Slide Hampton, organist Jimmy Smith and impresario George Wein.

“Good company,” Miss Horn notes modestly.

Tonight’s tribute at the 1,200-seat Eisenhower sort of sneaked up on her, she relates. Planning began two years ago, and “it actually started to be a nuisance,” she says, coming in the middle of a home remodeling project and “contracts up the yin-yang.” Among those scheduled to play on her behalf are trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, saxophonist-clarinetist Buck Hill, pianist Kenny Barron and violinist Regina Carter.

Miss Horn will perform as well, seated at the piano for one or two numbers, along with her longtime drummer Steve Williams, pianist George Mesterhazy and bassist Ed Howard. The group is a kind of family, she says: “I’m the mama who bosses them around.”

Losing a foot to complications from diabetes a few years ago made it necessary for her to use a prosthesis. The adjustment was difficult and often impossible at the piano because the distance between the top of the pedal and the floor is different on each instrument.

“It’s a pain in the you-know-what, especially in the morning, when you want to go, and you have to put it on,” she says. “I’m beginning to accept it. It’s cool.”

Helping her along toward acceptance was finding someone who developed for her what she calls “this piano-playing foot,” which works fairly well for the sustaining pedal she relies on during a song. At times this year, she has performed in a wheelchair — a big change after five years on a piano bench.

She is 70 and a grandmother but likes to joke, “I’m still in my mid-50s.” Her husband, Shepherd Deering, is retired from his job with the Metro system. They are between houses, going from a family home of 35 years in the Woodridge section of Northeast to the woods of Upper Marlboro. Their daughter Rainy Smith, who does marketing for the U.S. Postal Service, lives 20 minutes away.

Miss Horn’s Washington connections go back a long way, beginning with early studies as a piano prodigy of sorts. She began playing piano at age 4 and started studies in classical composition at Howard University at 12, later winning a scholarship to the Juilliard School, which she had to turn down because she couldn’t afford to live in New York.

The path to stardom was full of stops and starts, with memorable encounters and interventions from such people as Miles Davis, who helped start her career in the 1960s, and Quincy Jones, with whom she recorded several movie soundtracks.

Mr. Davis took her on when she was 25 after hearing her debut album, “Embers and Ashes.” She opened for the trumpeter at the Village Vanguard, and in 1998, she won a Grammy for best jazz vocal for her tribute to Mr. Davis, “I Remember Miles.”

WHAT: A Tribute to Shirley Horn

WHERE: Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater

WHEN: Today, 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: $50. Available at the box office or by calling Instant Charge 202/476-4600

PHONE: 202/467-4600

WEB SITE: www.kennedy-center.org

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