At 27 years old, Jazzmeia Horn is the youngest musician to be nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album in the past 20 years. But for Horn, who lists such jazz legends as Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter as musical influences, age has nothing to do with her seasoned voice.
The sophisticated vocals on the Dallas native's acclaimed debut album, last year’s “A Social Call,” infuse covers such as “East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)” and “Up Above My Head” with a soulful combination of power and love.
As a younger artist in an industry that typically draws a mature audience, Horn said she decided to repackage gospel and jazz standards in order to introduce her range and her personality to a new generation. Adding Negro spirituals, she said, was significant given the current political climate.
“The politics of today hearken back to the '60s and the '70s; we are still having those issues today,” said Horn, who will lead a septet Monday night at the Gaillard Center. “ ‘Wade in the Water’ reminds us to just be hopeful. ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is a power song and speaks volumes about where we have been and where we are going.”
Jazz buffs have a habit of comparing younger artists to their elders, But some recognize that jazz innovators such as Horn break the mold.
“The younger jazz artists are different, organic and well-rooted in the now,” said trumpeter and Michigan State University professor Etienne Charles, who has performed with Horn. “Legends inspire us, and we aspire to be like them. We want to create high-level art like they do. But there is more hunger right now with respect to artists wanting to make more profound statements.
“We can differentiate because we are not doing the same exact thing,” Charles continued. “But we can also be right along with them because we have similar mindsets and doctrines.”
Every aspect of Horn’s life so far — being raised in the church where she was exposed to her piano-playing grandmother and preaching grandfather, and studying jazz in high school and college — has made its way into her music.
“My life was my inspiration for my first album, and it just didn’t feel right to leave any portion of my life out of my music,” she said.
Horn might well have pursued a career as a gospel or R&B singer if it wasn’t for Roger Boykin’s jazz vocal class at Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, which lists Norah Jones and Erykah Badu among its alumni.
Boykin said he made Horn a mixtape of Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams and other jazz greats in order to help her develop her own sound. Not only did Horn cultivate a more silvery voice as a result, he said, but she also picked up on scat singing, a form of vocal improvisation.
“I think she is a much better scat singer than Sarah Vaughan was,” Boykin said of Horn, who won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition in 2015. “She seems to understand how jazz instrumentalists put their solos together and improvise on the chords of a particular song.”
Horn incorporates scat into her live performances as well as on her album’s opening track, “Tight,” a song closely associated with Betty Carter. But she said she doesn’t let the harmonies and styles of past jazz entertainers dictate her sound.
“I don’t think about differentiating myself,” she said. “I just do what I can do best and let the rest be. It is more important to me to be my authentic self.”
That authenticity can be heard throughout “A Social Call,” with its spoken-word passages addressing such topics as racism, police brutality and education.
“I always try to get the audience to sing along with me on a song, which is reminiscent of call-and-response that you see in the black church,” she said. “And the message that they sing is always healing.”
Andrea Henderson is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.