Jazz Steps Out: The Musical Spirit of Jazzmeia Horn

Volume 118, No. 2February, 2018

Jazzmeia Horn.
Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

Jazzmeia Janea Horn strides on stage, radiant in a bright yellow head wrap and a stunning, wax print dress patterned with orange, red and yellow leaves. She’s about to perform on national television for the first time. It’s been quite a year. She recorded her first record as a leader and began working with new management back in May, and in November, she was nominated for a Grammy. If she’s at all jittery, she doesn’t let it show.

I catch up with Jazzmeia (“Jazz” to her friends) on a Friday in early January, between gigs, while she’s coming off a grueling five-country European tour. As she tells her story, she’s pleasant, thoughtful and self-possessed.

Born into a musical family in the Dallas, Texas suburb of DeSoto – her father and mother both perform in the Golden Chain Missionary Baptist Church, where her grandfather, Reverend B. L. Horn, has been pastor for many years – she attended the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts in the city’s historic Deep Ellum district. Horn’s grandmother, Harriette, one of the guiding lights of her life, attended the same school in the 1960s.

“When my grandmother went to school there,” says the 26-year-old, “Deep Ellum and much of downtown Dallas was more or less black-owned. Then things started to change. In the 80s, the crack epidemic happened. Gentrification started. It eventually turned into a different type of environment, which is why it’s an arts community now. There’s everything there: food, museums, culture. There’s jazz, blues, traditional folk music, western swing, R&B, bluegrass, salsa, a very large gospel community. Music is just everywhere in Dallas. It’s a very soulful place.”

For many raised in the church, there was for years a strong divide between the sacred and the secular when it came to music. The blues and jazz were often anathema to those who performed in the gospel tradition. I ask Horn if this was ever an issue for her.

“Nope,” she says. “My grandfather always says that God hears everything. It all comes from the same place, especially as far as experience is concerned, and my grandfather never had a problem with the blues. On the way to church, we would be listening to Z. Z. Hill or Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. You know, crazy.”

Horn’s introduction to jazz came in a roundabout way. She remembers being in a Kroger or Winn-Dixie store and being approached by a blind man in an electric wheelchair. She tells it this way:

“I was 15, and I was humming some Alicia Keys or Brandy song. My grandmother had asked me to go and get some things, and I was walking around the store, and this blind man, he’s listening to me, and he pushes a button on his wheelchair and gets closer, and I’m not really paying much attention. I’m just singing my song and looking for things on the shelf. And he says, ‘Hey! What’s your name?’ And I rush off to another aisle, because I’m nervous and didn’t really know what to think. And he said, ‘You got a pretty voice there.’ And I was like, ‘Thank you.’ And he said, ‘What’s your name?’ ‘My name is Jazzmeia.’ He’s like, ‘Oh, you like jazz?’ I was like, ‘No. I don’t know anything about it.’ And he said, ‘How can your name be Jazzmeia, and you don’t know anything about jazz? What are you going to do, sing classical music?’ It wasn’t until later that I realized what he was saying. I felt bad about not knowing what jazz was. After all my name is Jazz!’

What followed was an immersion in the music, particularly in the great vocalists – especially Sarah Vaughan, but also Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, and more modern singers, including Ledisi, Lizz Wright, Jill Scott and Rachelle Ferrell.

Horn made the jump to New York City, where she had been accepted by the School of Jazz at the New School, albeit with the begrudging support of her family, who were concerned about her going so far away. Still, her grandfather allowed her to hold a fundraiser in his church to pay for her trip. She raised about $5,000.

“I used that money to make ends meet,” Horn remembers. “I bought my first plane ticket. You know, I bought my first serious groceries! I had my first apartment. I just skyrocketed into a totally different environment and became an adult immediately.”

The New School introduced her to a scene, but also to a series of mentors who impacted her professionally and artistically. Horn recalls, “When I first settled in, I was playing with cats like Winard Harper and Mark Gross and Marc Cary and Billy Harper. I was able to play with some of the greatest musicians and to have an opportunity to sit and talk with Jimmy Owens and Andy Bey, and a whole bunch of people. Ann Hampton Calloway – she was in New York too. All people I had looked up to and whose music I grew up with.”

She began to get gigs, and found some like-minded players at the New School, including the pianist Victor Gould, who helped her secure engagements at Zinc Bar and Small’s in the Village, and Minton’s Playhouse, the Lenox Lounge and Bill’s Place in Harlem. At the same time, she began to learn the business side of the music.

“I realized that it was not just about being an artist,” she tells me, “but also how to take care of promotion, A&R, publicists, social media – everything. I started to learn about distribution, all types of business methods or tools or energy that I could use to give myself a platform or get my name heard or network with different people.”

Jazzmeia Horn.
Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

These days she’s busy touring, about 30 weeks a year, and parenting her two small children. Last fall, she appeared in China, South Korea and Japan. She also toured Germany, the Netherlands, France, Great Britain and Italy. She often takes her children on tour. I ask her if that is as difficult as it sounds.

“It can be,” she says, “but it also comes naturally. I used to say, ‘I’m going to have to wait to have a family so I can make sure I’m financially stable.’ But the universe thought otherwise. I’ve just completely lived my life and went with the flow and…allowed my ancestors to guide me. I do believe everything happens for a reason.”

Horn adds, “My heart is big enough to love my children, kiss them goodbye, say ‘see you later’ – and then go do a show and give more love to hundreds and thousands of people – and then come right back and give love to my children again and do the same thing the next day. But it’s also amazing for them. They get an opportunity to experience the wide world from a child’s view, see what other little children look like and what languages they speak, what types of foods they eat and what they sound like. Not to mention the vibration of their culture and how they treat their parents and how their parents treat them. They’re learning all of that by going on the road with me. This is the way I’m choosing to raise my children by being able to appreciate other people’s cultures, and not just living one way your whole entire life.”

I ask her about her approach to music and comment on what I believe to be her novel mode of jazz vocalizing: an edginess that sounds outside the mainstream, experimental. But Horn doesn’t agree.

“Rather, I would say that it’s not common for other vocalists to use their voices as an instrument in the way I do,” Horn responds. “That’s the difference. I use my voice as an instrument, so if I’m not singing lyrics, I’m still going to tell a story with my voice, making some type of sound or playing with the timbre as an instrumentalist would do. I can use my entire body as my instrument – that’s essentially what I’m doing. These cats can go do cocaine and drink alcohol and party all night and be tired but wake up and still have the energy to play, because they’re just pressing down buttons. But my body is my instrument, so I have a different way of interpreting music and being in the music. I just kind of let it happen naturally. My whole entire vessel as an instrument versus, ‘Oh, let me just be a singer.’ That being said, if the music dictates that I scream, I’m going to scream. If it needs me to make some kind of Amazonian, ambient sound with my voice, I’m going to do that as well.”

The combination of this courageous approach to improvisation and Horn’s deep commitment to the groove brings with it a distinctively soulful element. But Horn says unequivocally that being “soulful” is not a conscious effort on her part.

“I just sing from my spirit,” she says, “and if it sounds like church, it’s probably because that’s where I first found God as a child. I didn’t have a choice. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh you don’t have to go to church.’ It was like, ‘No, this is where you’re going to be brought up. This is where you’re going to be every Sunday.’ You know, as a preacher’s kid, that’s what I had to do. So, if I sound like I’m singing gospel, it probably is just because my spirit was led to go there.”

By far the most major development in Horn’s career came last November, when she learned she had been nominated for a Grammy for best jazz vocal album, “A Social Call” (Concorde/Prestige). “I named the album that,” says Horn, “because I really wanted to put out a call to social injustice, a call to put a magnifying glass on the issues that we’re facing today: racism, xenophobia, prejudice, the legacy of slavery, nuclear plants leaking into streams, our spirits being in captivity, our minds being in captivity as far as the media brainwashing us with all of this crap, technology that we don’t necessarily need. And ‘social’ doesn’t necessarily mean to go out and have a drink and be sociable. I mean ‘social’ as in: What is actually going on in society? What is the problem?”

Horn adds, “I feel that music is a gateway to the soul. We continue to use our platform to speak out about these social injustices and just bring positive light, positive thoughts and positive vibrations and positive sounds to the people. I think we can make a better world for future generations versus the destruction that is happening in the universe right now. When you help someone else, you help yourself. ‘Power’ is not the powers that be. The powers that be, they have no power. There’s only a few of them and there’s all of us. There is real power in the group. We must work together and create our own currency. And if that means bartering, so be it. Sometimes you must do that. But by all means, let’s create our own way, and take our own power back. Even if it is just a small relationship: ‘I know this booking agent. I know this manager. I’ll put you in touch with them, etc,’ and then the whole networking thing becomes a revolutionary act.”

Horn says that her outspokenness is not always popular with audiences, and that she is not always welcomed as a strong black woman who stands firm in what she believes – especially since she doesn’t always present herself as smiling and happy. However, she tells me that many people have also responded positively to her message. She says, “When we were in Italy recently, we had about anywhere from 600 to 800 people, and three or four hundred of those people kept coming back every night. We played five nights in a row in various places, and every time we played a different concert, I would see a lot of the same faces in the audience. And a lot of these same people kept coming up to me after the show with distraught faces, like ‘I don’t know if I’m supposed to love this music or hate it,’ you know? So, there’s a lot of that in my audiences. A lot of people don’t like what they see, or a lot of people absolutely love what they see. A lot of people are just confused! But I fully believe that the purpose I have in the universe is being fulfilled. That’s healing! It’s like a new pair of shoes: when you first put them on, they’re gonna be uncomfortable, because you have to break them in, but after a while, they become maybe your favorite pair of shoes.”

I ask her if she worries about people who don’t “get” her music.

She smiles. “I really don’t,” she tells me. “And I’ll tell you why. The reason that those people in Italy kept coming back in numbers is because their hearts and their spirits really enjoyed it. Even if they didn’t understand it intellectually. That means there’s light and love within me, and somebody else can receive that light and love and have a better day and not even really know it, you know? That’s good.”

Back in the TV studio, in that stunning dress (which she made herself!) as the cameras capture her every gesture and expression, and as her musicians kick in – Horn’s voice opens up. One cannot help but think of Sarah Vaughan or Betty Carter, but also, perhaps less overtly, of Ray Charles. She has exceptional musicality, and swing to spare. Her aggressive, multidimensional approach to melody is eclipsed only by her absolute fearlessness, and her impeccable scatting. She moans, she shouts, she shakes her voice, soaring to the top of her impressive range and swooping down to find the groove. If jazz is, as Whitney Balliett called it, the “sound of surprise,” then Jazzmeia Horn – vocalist, mother, modern-day revolutionary – is a revelation of the highest order.