It’s a sweltering day in Deep Ellum, and singer Jazzmeia Horn glides down a busy Elm Street sidewalk looking effortlessly cool in a gold African head-wrap. The gold fabric appears to be melting — an illusion created by the glaring sun and heat — but nobody gives a second glance.
She takes a seat inside Cafe Brazil and compliments her waitress on her choice of eye shadow, but the server barely thanks Horn and goes straight back to work. Like everyone else in Deep Ellum, the waitress has no clue that Horn is a Grammy-nominated, scat-singing virtuoso and one of most important musicians to emerge from Dallas in ages.
In the span of just two years, Horn, 28, has become one of jazz’s brightest young stars, playing to big crowds in Europe and Asia and earning rave reviews from critics and peers alike.
“Jazzmeia has one of the best voices I’ve heard in over 40 years,” the legendary vocalist Jon Hendricks said before he died in 2017.
But as she prepares to release her second album, Love and Liberation, on Aug. 23, Horn is learning it takes more than critical acclaim and an awe-inspiring voice to get noticed in mainstream America. Or even in her hometown.
She says she doesn’t mind not being recognized in Dallas, where she attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts before moving to New York in 2009.
“People come up to me all the time in New York City and in airports in Europe, and I actually don’t like it,” she says. “When I’m really tired, I don’t want to talk to anybody.”
But ask about a lack of recent Dallas concerts, and her cool demeanor fades.
“It (expletive) sucks,” she says of the fact that no one has hired her to perform in Dallas in years. She was scheduled to play in April in Fort Worth at the Main Street Arts Festival, but the show was canceled because of heavy rain.
“Most of my family has never seen me in my glory. The core of my community — all these people that knew me when — they’ve never seen me onstage,” she says, growing quiet. “I guess I have to be a little more famous to play in Dallas.”
Welcome to the marginalized world of traditional jazz, an American art form that made up 70% of all U.S. record sales in the 1940s, but has declined in popularity ever since. There are countless reasons for the decline — the rise of rock ‘n’ roll being the most obvious.
Today, jazz’s lack of popularity is tied up with the misconception that it’s no fun to listen to. To a lot of Americans, jazz means screeching solos and helter-skelter rhythms, even though that’s just one small slice of the pie. Anyone who gives the genre half a chance knows it can be just as melodic, soulful and accessible as any style of music.
Even Horn once had a closed mind about jazz.
As a child, she sang gospel music at Dallas’ Golden Chain Missionary Baptist Church, where her grandfather, the Rev. B.L. Horn, is a pastor. But as a teen living in DeSoto, Horn gravitated toward rock, wore punk-style bracelets, and sang Nirvana covers in a garage band.
To her, jazz was “old people’s music.” And she didn’t like her name, either. Pronounced “jazz-me-ah,” it was chosen by her late grandmother, who was a jazz fanatic.
“It would piss me off when people would say ‘What kind of a name is Jazzmeia?’ I was like “I don’t know. It’s just my name, you know?'”
She finally came around to both her name and jazz music while attending Booker T. Washington High School and studying with teacher Roger Boykin, the veteran Dallas musician who’s toured with saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman.
Boykin recognized Horn’s talent straightaway and made her a mix CD of jazz singers he thought she needed to hear, including Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan. Within weeks of hearing the disc, Horn was singing jazz like she’d been doing it for 50 years.
“It really caught me by surprise,” Boykin says. “She worked really hard at it, but she also had this natural ability for scat singing — she was scatting lines like you might expect a saxophone player to play them.”
Horn applied to the University of North Texas, hoping to enroll in its world-renowned jazz program, But the university didn’t offer her any scholarship money, while the New School, a university in Manhattan, offered her a full ride.
“That was a no-brainer: I was like ‘Bye Dallas!’ I’m out!,” she says with a laugh.
New York scene
Moving to New York City in 2009 proved to be a godsend. When Horn wasn’t in class, she made a beeline for the city’s many jazz clubs, where she sat in with top jazz players and made countless connections. She gets misty-eyed talking about the support she got from Hendricks and trumpeter Roy Hargrove, the Booker T. alumnus who died in November.
But it wasn’t all love and affirmation inside the jazz clubs. More than one older musician told Horn she was getting too big for her britches.
“They’d be like, ‘You ain’t got it.’ And that traumatized me at first,” she says. “But I appreciate that about elders. They don’t sugarcoat things. They kept me humble.”
She kept honing her skills and expanding her mind, including taking African dance classes and learning about African history and clothes. In 2015, she won the coveted Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, the top award for rising jazz musicians, which led to a contract with Concord Records, the L.A. label which released her debut album, A Social Call, in May 2017.
Six months later, she was awoken at 6 a.m. by a phone ringing in her Los Angeles hotel room. It was a friend calling with the news that Horn had been nominated for a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
“I was so happy, I started screaming at the top of my lungs,” she recalls. “Someone from the hotel had to knock on my door and say ‘People are reporting screaming in this room … is everything OK?'”
Horn lost the Grammy to Cecile McLorin Salvant’s Dreams and Daggers, but the nomination and rave reviews created a big demand for her live performances — especially outside the U.S., where jazz tends to be better appreciated. Horn has spent much of the last two years jetting around the globe, playing at clubs and festivals around Europe, South America and Asia.
In China, authorities asked her not to recite the poem on A Social Call where she addresses racism, poverty and police brutality.
“They were like ‘We don’t have those problems here,'” she says. After mulling it over, she decided not to make an issue of it. “The Chinese people can hear my album regardless. I’m there to make the audience happy and collect the check.”
Amid all the travel, she found time to record Love and Liberation. It’s a strong album, cut from the same fabric as A Social Call, with Horn’s hypnotic voice recalling Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan in their prime. It’s also a creative step forward, with Horn writing eight of the songs.
“With my first album, I wanted to give people a taste of what I sounded like singing standards. But this album is about me,” she says. “It’s about freeing your mind and expressing who you are, no matter what your race, color, creed or sexual orientation. We all know what’s going on in our society. This album is a call to action, starting with yourself.”
Her lyrics run the gamut from the heavy to whimsical. “Legs and Arms,” the fictional tale of a spurned lover who kills himself, was inspired by a man who stalked Horn in Manhattan. “When I Say” is a playful romp inspired by the singer’s preschool age daughters, Ma’at and Seshat.
Perhaps the most striking tune is Horn’s bold new arrangement of Erykah Badu’s “Green Eyes.” The singer has never met Badu, who also went to Booker T. Washington, but Horn says she’s dying to “pick her brain.”
“She’s inspired me so much and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to rearrange one of her songs and give Erykah something to show her how much I appreciate her.’ “
Badu has built a long, successful career by mixing soul, jazz and hip-hop into hit albums. That genre-blurring approach also worked wonders for Norah Jones, the Booker T. alumna who’s sold tens of millions of albums by blending jazz with country and whatever else she feels like playing.
Boykin thinks Horn would be wise to also branch out from traditional jazz — at least temporarily. He points to Bobby McFerrin and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” as the perfect example of a serious jazz artist who strengthened his career with a mainstream hit.
“Jazzmeia’s got the talent and the drive. But to make her career, she needs a great song that’s going to cross over into the pop field,” Boykin says. “She can still continue to be a jazz musician. But there has to be some give and take.”
Horn said she’d love to record a song with Stevie Wonder or Kendrick Lamar, to name two artists on her dream list of collaborators. But she balks at the idea of sacrificing her values on the altar of mainstream success.
“At the moment, I don’t feel the need to change and start doing pop music or anything else … but who knows what will happen 10 years from now?” she says.
On Love and Liberation, she sings several songs about the importance of being patient in a society built on instant gratification. Through trial and error, she’s learned to use that same philosophy to guide her career.
“I’m actually happy I didn’t win the Grammy award … I’ll have my time.” she says. “You have to build a foundation first before you can build a house, or the house will just crumble. I’m exactly where I need to be right now. There’s no rush.”
Thor Christensen is a freelance writer and a former music critic at The Dallas Morning News.