Here’s to Life

Back in the days when Tower Records was the place to shop for music, I used to spend at least two afternoons each month browsing the jazz section for new releases. I had long since learned that jazz critics and I did not hear the same thing on recordings, so reading magazines was a waste of time. This was the mid-90s, and my vocal jazz collection was sparse, consisting of a Nina Simone LP, “Little Girl Blue” (and by LP, I mean vinyl), and a few Al Jarreau LPs. Until that time, my focus had been on trumpeters (Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, and Clifford Brown). I had nothing against jazz vocalists but was unfamiliar with the vocal artists.

I bought Nina Simone’s album (Little Girl Blue) because I had heard “My Baby Don’t Care” years earlier while driving to the beach and decided I had to have that recording. Being from 1959.  It took forever to find it. Al Jarreau entered my ears by way of college radio while in DC. Aside from those two, jazz vocalists were not a part of my everyday listening experience.

In the days before the Internet matured and broadband access became a reality, the only way to find out about out-of-print music was from magazines, books, or the people who heard it. I had a few books; magazines were not that helpful. Books tended to focus on jazz personalities more than specific songs or albums, so they were of limited help. There was no way to know what songs I might like or which artist would have an appealing style. That is why my hours at Tower Records were such a big deal–they had listening stations!

Listening stations took some of the guesswork out of buying music, but they were not a panacea because each station could hold only a few CDs. Soon, however, Blockbuster Music entered the fray, and Blockbuster allowed you to ask the store clerk to hear a specific record. Now, that was wonderful!

In 1993, “Here’s to Life” featuring Shirley Horn won a Grammy for the Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals. That Grammy made it worthy of being included at a Tower listening station. Browsing the listening stations, I came across the display and, having found nothing of interest so far, decided to hear what was considered “Grammy worthy.” I had never heard of Shirley Horn, and the cover photo looked like a typical supper club poster from the 1940s. Boredom alone made me listen.

After about thirty seconds, I was hooked.

“Here’s to Life,” the first song on the album, and one that became Ms. Horn’s signature song, began with a few soft notes from the violin and piano–then, that voice. I still find it impossible to describe her voice—clear, rich, soft, poignant, inviting. I stood there, eyes closed, transfixed. Then the strings rose to meet her voice–I had never heard anything so lushly melodic. After being mesmerized for a few moments, my attention shifted to the lyrics. Phyllis Molinary’s lyrics conveyed a quiet resolve to accept whatever life might bring and make the best of it. Underlying that resolve was a sober optimism determined to keep moving forward while letting the past stay past.

No complaints
And no regrets
I still believe in chasing dreams
and placing bets


But I have learned
That all you give
Is all you get
So, give it all you’ve got

In my mid-30s, with a new job and a new toddler, in a new city, I had a lot of life ahead of me. That song was saying: no matter what happens, always give it your best shot.

Ms. Horn began her career in the early 60s; Miles Davis was a fan. She paused to raise her daughter from the mid-60s to the late 1970s before resuming recording and touring. From then on, she was active and well-known within the jazz community, but not to me. She recorded “You Won’t Forget Me,” my second favorite Shirley Horn song, with Miles Davis in 1991. Ms. Horn’s vocals, accompanied by the plaintive melancholy of Miles’ trumpet, perfectly show off the talents of each.

She had diabetes, which cut down on her touring schedule. I really wanted, but never expected to see her in concert. Then, sometime in the mid-1990s, the very unexpected happened. While reading the paper one Friday afternoon, I noticed that Ms. Horn was doing a concert at Grant Park in Atlanta—free!!! I sat in perfect weather on a balmy night and heard that voice. Sometimes it feels as though I dreamed it.

“Here’s to Life” was in my car’s CD player. For a while, every trip was accompanied by that voice. Since Sunday afternoons were daddy-daughter time, my daughter heard that song many times. It never occurred to me that she might be paying attention. She threw herself a big birthday bash three years ago and requested it be played.

Ms. Horn died from diabetes complications in 2005 after a long career with worldwide acclaim. She was indeed a remarkable artist and one that led me to Nancy Wilson, Sara Vaughn, Cassandra Wilson, Betty Carter, and others.

Thank you, Ms. Horn

Listen to my favorite songs:     Here’s to Life    |    You Won’t Forget Me


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