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Free Jazzmeia

On her debut album, an electrifying young singer from Dallas draws on the past, but refuses to be its prisoner.

By June 2017Comments

Jazzmeia Horn.
Photograph by Jacob Blickenstaff

Whenever the sharp young singer Jazzmeia Horn is obliged to answer a question about her name—and lately, the subject comes up often—she invariably takes the conversation to church. To be more precise, the Golden Chain Missionary Baptist Church, in southeast Dallas, where her grandfather has been pastor for four decades.

“Before I was born, my grandmother was the organist,” recalls Horn one morning this past spring, over herbal tea at a cafe in Harlem. “She wanted to perform jazz and blues, but because she was the first lady, she was kind of pinned down. She wasn’t allowed to venture out and be a musician other than in the church.”

Horn pauses, as if to line up the point of the story just so. “She passed her gift to me by naming me Jazzmeia.” Her pronunciation puts a stress on the second syllable—“jazz-me-uh”—though of course to friends and family it has always been “Jazz” for short.

Say what you will about the notion of naming as destiny, which has its own Roman saying, “Nomen est omen.” For the 26-year-old Horn, who began singing in the choir as a toddler, there’s no doubt that she was ordained as a musician at birth. Her gift and calling have since led her through the most rigorous vetting process available to a present-day jazz singer—and now on to A Social Call (Concord/Prestige), the rangy, self-possessed major-label debut that could herald the next big voice in her field.

On the album’s ten cuts, Horn pointedly evokes a few great jazz voices of yore. In her clarion projection and pliable control, she summons Sarah Vaughan, her first and biggest influence. The mercurial spark in her phrasing, as well as her nimble scatting, points to Betty Carter—whose calling card, “Tight,” is the album’s lead single. Among the other touchstones are Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Shirley Horn (no relation), and Ernestine Anderson, who sang on one of the first recordings of the jazz standard “Social Call.”

There was a time, not long ago, when you’d consider this set of historical allusions and look for the marketing suit in the room. But A Social Call was emphatically made according to Horn’s own designs. “I went in the door saying, ‘These are the guys I want to play with, this is the theme for the album, these are the tunes I want to do,’ ” she says. “I also make my own clothes. Most of the time when I’m performing, it’s my own outfits. I had all these ideas, and they were like, ‘Okay, let’s go with it.’ ”

Horn’s convictions can be felt in a series of other flourishes on A Social Call, including a cover of the Stylistics’ 1971 anthem “People Make the World Go Round,” prefaced by an earnest spoken-word poem that rattles off a list of societal problems. Horn said she meant the album’s title not in the wistful, flirtatious way that lyricist Jon Hendricks intended, but as a call to action.

“Like Nina Simone always said, ‘Use your platform to talk about what’s going on in the world; otherwise, why are you a musician?’ ” Horn says. “I kind of live by that.”

Horn grew up in the Dallas suburb of DeSoto, though her deeper connection was to the church, where both of her parents were involved in music ministry, and where her grandfather, Reverend B. L. Horn, held fast to Southern Baptist orthodoxy. “There’s no contemporary music at Golden Chain,” Horn explains. “Everything is old Negro spirituals and hymns.”

Horn’s early heroes weren’t jazz divas so much as modern-day strivers like Fantasia Barrino, who won American Idol in 2004. Barrino’s arrangement of “Summertime” formed the crux of one of Horn’s auditions for the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, the music magnet whose alumni include Erykah Badu and Norah Jones, two singers who now stand a step or two removed from jazz, in different directions.

After unsuccessfully auditioning as a freshman and again as a sophomore, Horn was finally admitted her junior year. She didn’t know much about jazz, but she was a quick study with obvious command of her instrument. That made her a target of kids who were jealous of her skills. “When I entered performing arts school, people hated me because I was more advanced than some of the other students, and I got put in ensembles right away. They were really upset, like, ‘Who does she think she is?’ ”

One of her teachers at Booker T. Washington was Roger Boykin, an all-around pillar of the Dallas jazz scene, who gave her a CD compilation of vocalists to check out. One track featured Vaughan singing “Shulie a Bop,” a coolly imperious scat aria recorded in 1954. When Horn heard Vaughan, it was as if a key had been turned in a secret door.

“I became so obsessed with Sarah that I would learn every song that she sang, verbatim,” she says. “Every song. Eventually I stopped singing those songs for a while because I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m just imitating Sarah. I’m learning her story versus giving what I have to offer.’ ”

Following graduation, Horn moved to New York City to attend the School of Jazz at the New School. True to form, she found herself operating outside of any clique, amassing experience both in the classroom and on the bandstand, at jazz boîtes like the Zinc Bar and Smalls. Horn grew accustomed to the experience, familiar to many a fresh-faced young jazz singer, of being underestimated by skeptical musicians—until she opened her mouth to sing. She takes a certain satisfaction in recounting these dues, now paid in full.

Jazz singing, at its upper echelons, can be a slippery thing to define: an evolving discipline with a proven lineage but no fixed parameters, and a strong inclination toward the blending of styles. The reigning queens of the art form—Dee Dee Bridgewater, Dianne Reeves, Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall—have made digressions into one or another form of pop. Notwithstanding a North Star like Tony Bennett or Freddy Cole, jazz singers tend to be shape-shifters, which can make it difficult to draw a clear bead on the dimensions of the art.

Against this backdrop, one recent barometer for excellence has been the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, which takes place annually in Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. The competition features a different instrument each year, in rotation. Horn won the most recent vocal Monk Competition, in 2015, after winning another major contest, the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, in 2013. For a concise distillation of what makes her special, look up on YouTube her performance at the Monk semifinals, when she scatted her way through the intricacies of the Monk composition “Evidence.” It’s a boss move, and she nails it, taking charge of the house rhythm section as if it’s her own band.

“I was struck by her amazing scat abilities,” recalls Bridgewater, who was one of the judges. “And her choice of material—to choose complicated songs, to do them with the ease that she did. I thought that she took chances, where a lot of the other young singers played it safe. I felt that she was the singer who showed the most promise for the advancement of vocal jazz.”

All of this was in evidence during a recent concert at Manhattan’s Tribeca Performing Arts Center. Taking the stage in her trademark head wrap, Horn was a riveting presence from the jump, with a daring, spontaneous sense of phrasing and an unmistakable authority with her band. By the standards of a concert jazz audience, the response was rapturous: whoops and hollers routinely punctuated the applause. Still, the performance raised the question of exactly how Horn is advancing the art of jazz singing. Her delivery was impressive for its clarity and charisma; she wasn’t working by rote, on any level. But it feels a little odd to think that Horn might push vocal jazz into the future by way of her foothold in the past.

A Social Call disarms that critique by giving Horn ample room to move—to proceed with chilling composure, for example, from the jazz standard “Afro Blue” to a spoken-word poem about systemic racial oppression to a version of the African American spiritual “Wade in the Water” (all this on a track called “Medley,” the album’s boldest stroke of expressionism).

At its best, the album frames Horn’s idiosyncrasies as an aesthetic reflection of her particular life experience. One standout track, a sprint through the 1941 standard “I Remember You,” can only be seen as her genuflection to Vaughan. In an inspired and more unexpected move, Horn sings “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Episcopal hymn often described as the black national anthem, as a prelude to the classic hard-bop shuffle “Moanin’.” Her voice traces this shift from lofty idealism to gritty realism, creating an efficient metaphor for the African American liberation movement, with a knockout scat chorus to boot.

Horn has never had the luxury of savoring her success in isolation from real-life concerns. When she won the Monk Competition, her first daughter was just shy of a year old. “I couldn’t go to the after-party right away, because I had to go and feed her,” she recalls. “So it didn’t really sink in until I got back to New York that I had won.” Her second daughter was born late last year—she was performing a holiday gig at a private party when her water broke. Both of her children were named after Egyptian deities: Ma’at, the goddess of balance, justice, and truth, and Seshat, the goddess of wisdom and the written word. It should come as no surprise that Horn put a lot of thought into their names. She sees herself carrying on a tradition, on more than one level.

“In a way, I sing in remembrance of my grandmother,” Horn says. “She wasn’t able to speak about what she wanted to speak about. Now I’m just like, ‘I’m Jazzmeia: an open book, a free spirit.’ I feel like I’m doing what I was put here to do.”

Nate Chinen is a former music critic at the New York Times and the director of editorial content at the jazz station WBGO.

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