To fans of old-school vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald or Nancy Wilson, the 2017 debut album by Dallas’ Jazzmeia Horn, A Social Call, must seem heaven-sent. Horn’s control and range are absolute wonders; she can scat with playful precision, swoop from a commanding lower vocal tone to a deceptively light upper register, and she can soar over a simple upright bass-and-piano backing (as on “East Of The Sun (West Of The Moon)”, or a brassy big band (“Up Above My Head”) with equal ease. For a first album, the level of skill and confidence Horn displays is stunning.
And perhaps that’s because Horn came to that album with an incredible amount of experience and some serious critical acclaim. In the process of earning her degree at New York’s New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in the late 2000s, the buzz around Horn became so strong that she was able to work with Winard Harper, Junior Mance, Billy Harper, Delfeayo & Ellis Marsalis, Wycliffe Gordon, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and James Morrison, among others. And she learned something from virtually all of them.
“Winard Harper taught me that no matter what you are going through in life, music is always there to help you,” she says. “Dee Dee Bridgewater taught me not to take anything from anybody; that lady is fierce. Wycliffe Gordon taught me to be eclectic and adapt to different environments and James Morrison taught me that it is important to keep a connection with youth.”
Singing alongside these musicians, Horn honed her skills to the extent that she was able to perform at legendary New York hot spots like The Apollo, The Blue Note, Dizzy’s Jazz Club, and Birdland. She also won Downbeat magazine’s Student Music Award in 2008 and 2009, their Best Vocal Jazz Soloist award in 2010, the 2012 Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Jazz Competition “Rising Star” Award, and the 2015 Brooklyn Jazz Consortium’s Young Lioness Award, all before she’d recorded her first album. And rather than ignoring the praise, as some musicians do, Horn says she’s been able to use it to her advantage.
“I can appreciate the accolades without them being a distraction,” she says. “What I like to do is hold on to the articles and use them on days when I feel like I didn’t do as well as I would have liked. I might go home and read those articles and use them for motivation.”
That being said, Horn isn’t interested in resting on her laurels. Depending on the night you see her perform, her set might be 50 percent material from A Social Call and 50 percent new material she’s been working on. That adventurous spirit isn’t uncommon in jazz music, but Horn says she also drew strength from how well her Grammy-nominated debut album turned out.
“I learned that if you just be yourself, people will really appreciate your music,” she says. “I learned to be authentic and trust myself.”
Like many of the performers on this year’s Spoleto schedule, and like many jazz musicians in general, Horn has been conscious of giving back to her musical community through education. She is currently a teaching artist at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s Wells Fargo Jazz For Teens program, as well as being a part of the Jazz In The Schools Program in Newark.
“Jazz has a strong tradition of teaching because unlike classical music, it has not been taught in a professional setting for years and years,” she says. “Jazz is a beautiful art form, so if you love it, it’s easy to teach, and those who want to learn it have an easier time learning. Because of my history, I love teaching jazz because I feel like I am paying homage to those who came before me.”