A colorful, vibrant, elegant, and fierce new voice continues to uplift the global jazz scene with her Love and Liberation tour. Her name is Jazzmeia Horn, and the 2020 Grammy Award nominee is quickly coming into her own as one of the great female jazz vocalists.
On March 6 and 7 in The Appel Room, Horn brings with her a young, yet well-seasoned group of respected musicians. In this exclusive interview she explains, “I’m very excited about this performance coming up in The Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center! I’ve been wanting to perform there for many years. I have performed before at Dizzy’s Club. I’ve seen shows in Rose Theater and The Appel Room, and I can’t wait! The musicians I’m working with include Keith Brown, the son of Donald Brown, a great pianist. I’ve been playing with him for about two years. On bass we have Rashaan Carter. I’ve been working with the drummer Anwar Marshall for about two years as well. This year we’ve been playing all over, so we’re really ready for Jazz at Lincoln Center. We just left Japan recently, and we had dates in China, Australia, South Korea, and Canada. We played at the Monterey Jazz Festival this year, which was so exciting! This Jazz at Lincoln Center show will be a highlight for me.” Rounding out the ensemble is one of New York City’s hottest trumpet players, Josh Evans, along with with saxophonist Irwin Hall and dancer Alexandria Johnson.
Horn’s career has taken off since winning the 2015 International Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition. Her sophomore release, Love and Liberation, is her first collection of almost-entirely original compositions. She counts as influences Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter, and, as with many great vocalists, Horn started by singing in the church choir. “It helped me by giving me the confidence to sing. I started singing when I was three. I knew that I could sing, but I was a very small child. Singing in the choir made me feel normal. It normalized what I was hearing in my head. Once I got older, I didn’t have any stage fright. There’s always stage fright when you’re playing in a different country or something like that, but I really didn’t have any of that in elementary school, junior high, or high school. I guess it really boosted my confidence to sing on a stage in front of people.
In a recent, stunning Jazziz magazine cover, Horn’s appearance stops you in your tracks. “It’s really the essence of my legacy being continued from the women that have come before me. People ask me why I wear a head wrap. Well, there’s a lot of women who wear it to protect their hair; women in Africa use it to carry water from town to town. The way I wear my head wrap is a very African American way. We wrap our hair because it’s a part of our culture, and it came out of hip hop, it came out of African culture, it came out of neo-soul. For me its just a reverence to the divinity and femininity all around the globe. It has become a part of my business branding. People see the head wrap and think of me and think of Africa and African American culture. Also, a lot of the clothes I wear I make myself. It’s putting my own energy into my artistry and everything I do. It’s not just the music; it’s the way that they see you. As the saying goes, ‘they see you before they hear you.’ People say, ‘why don’t you just dress in gowns and dresses… that’s what jazz is.’ Well, I say, 'I’m Jazzmeia, and nobody’s going to tell me what to do.' I have fun with it.”
Without any professional vocal training, Horn brings a homegrown, natural talent to the table. “I spent most of my time developing my sound when I was in the shower, at church, in the car on the way home, or at school in the choir. When I became an adult, I started practicing in practice rooms when I got to college. We were really poor growing up, so other than my grandmother and hearing my mother sing, there was no one to teach us piano lessons or things like that. My mother was a single parent, and there were three of us. I have two younger brothers. I never got to take voice lessons. I just grew up listening and taking everything in like a sponge. If I hear a sound even today, I could definitely mimic that sound. It’s a lot of listening and practicing.”
A strong person who demands respect, Horn makes it clear that she’s a force to be reckoned with. “These musicians I carry with me because they have a reverence for women. It’s hard being a woman on the scene and putting my best foot forward. There’s always somebody saying something negative. That’s why I have these men with me. It’s easier working with women, because we know what we need [laughs]. It’s easy in the workplace, and to play with women, because we read each other’s minds. Men are a different kind of thing. Because I grew up with brothers, and I’m the eldest of three… it was really easy to come to New York and work with these guys, because they have black women as mothers, and they have black women as sisters. They have a different reverence for women. I like musicians who can play my music and work with me, because sometimes I’m very difficult. They listen to me. It’s hard to find men who can take orders from a woman. I hate to say it like that, but that’s just my reality. We’ve developed a group sound, and they respect me, and that’s very hard to find. Sometimes the ego just gets in the way. My musicians are on time for soundcheck. They dress the part. They have a reverence for the music. We get along just fine, because we have the same goal. That’s what makes the audience feel a lot better. What I look for in the musicians is their attitude toward the music. It doesn’t matter if it’s man or woman, black or white, as long as we have the same goals.”
Wynton Marsalis hired Horn last year to perform in the debut of his Ever Fonky Lowdown alongside vocalists Camille Thurman and Brianna Thomas. It was the first time she met Marsalis.
Another great inspiration in her life comes from a legendary trumpeter and teacher at The New School: the great Charles Tolliver. “Charles Tolliver was the teacher I learned from the most! I just talked to him a couple days ago. He’s connected to the source. You can ask that man anything, and if he doesn’t have the answer, he can go find it for you. Those kind of teachers make living and learning music worthwhile. I want to be a teacher like him. He inspired me to write my book. I wrote the book because there’s no book for singers! There’s the Omni book, the Charlie Parker book, the Miles Davis book… books about how to improvise and how to blow, but there are no books out there about what’s important for the singers. Things like storytelling, how to conduct the band, what’s important about your style, and how to build your branding. So I wrote a book about it called The Jazzmeia Horn Approach.
Coincidentally—or maybe not—Roy Hargrove, Erika Badu, and Jazzmeia Horn all went to the same high school in Dallas: the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Expect world-class talent on a new level in The Appel Room on March 6 and 7 with The Artistry of Jazzmeia Horn. You will be uplifted.
Scott H. Thompson is an internationally published writer and jazz publicist.