So here was Lena Horne backstage at Avery Fisher Hall June 20, ready to face her first audience in several years. Two weeks of rehearsal was her only preparation. Yet, as she later recalled, she wasn’t scared. Yet.
“ It’ll be all right, " she thought. “ Billy’s with me. “
Billy Strayhorn, after all, was the reason she was there in the first place. The concert was the JVC Jazz Festival’s tribute to Duke Ellington’s late collaborator, arranger and composer of “Take the A Train.”
Though Horne, 10 days shy of her 76th birthday, had passed on several offers to perform at the festival, her own friendship with Strayhorn--the depth of which may only have rivaled Ellington’s--compelled her to say yes, finally, to a rare live performance.
“Billy was there that night with me. He always is when I get ready to perform,” she recalled. “And I was happy. I knew I wasn’t going to have trouble.”
She was so laid back that she drifted onstage before singer Bobby Short finished introducing her. An eruption of applause ensued that was as close to volcanic as anything Lincoln Center has ever sustained.
She thought, “She hadn’t even uttered a sound before someone’s car alarm went off somewhere.” (“Oh, that was nothing!” she later said. “Years ago, when I was performing in Sweden, there was a man who had an epileptic fit just as I came out.) She told everyone she was “nerrrrrvous.” Yet she also looked like someone having the time of her life.
Through song and reminiscence, she summoned a vivid, glowing image of Strayhorn and made off with everyone’s breath when she sang her theme, “Stormy Weather,” with fire-breathing power unimaginable for someone in her mid-70s--even someone as capable of the miraculous as Lena Horne. Reviewers would trip over themselves in pursuit of superlatives. “The stuff of legend,” the New York Times proclaimed. The performance, wrote Entertainment Weekly’s Alan Carter, “was not just focused, but driven and defiant.”
Backstage, after the set was over, Horne’s longtime friend, songwriter-producer Shirley Cowell, who had been trying to get her back into a recording studio for almost five years, asked, “Are you ready to start rehearsing?” Resigned, Horne showed up a week later in a studio full of musicians, ready to work.
The result, “We’ll Be Together Again” (Blue Note), was released earlier this month. On this album, the astonishment continues.
“She won’t say so, but deep down, she knows the album is good,” Cowell says. “She’s always been . . . well, she doesn’t talk about the music very much, though she loves music. She has never believed herself to be as good a singer as everyone else does.”
Horne, in an interview conducted in a near-abandoned Manhattan restaurant, is more emphatic. “I hate singing!” she says.
She keeps insisting she is not a jazz singer, especially not in the league of Ella Fitzgerald, whom she reveres. It is suggested to her that her voice carries (if you will) horn-like inflections and that she can bend notes at certain angles. Those are jazz qualities, right?
“Yes,” she says with a laugh, “and they’re the only ones I’ve got.”
Her life in New York is simple and as unfettered by show-business ritual as possible. She reads as incessantly as she did as a child. (Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Walter Mosley are favorites.) She stays close to her five grandchildren. And, she watches old flicks on the American Movie Channel. And the Cartoon Network.
It’s hard to know which is harder to believe: that Horne hates singing or that she embraces such simple pleasures as a good Tom and Jerry slugfest. It’s less difficult to believe her when she says she would rather have taught school than have the world at her feet.
To admit incredulity with such matters, however, is to put oneself in the same company as the many who have, at best, misperceived and, at worst, distorted Lena Horne throughout her life.
Once a zone of intimacy is established in conversation with Horne, she is less like Isis or some other mythic goddess and more like somebody’s spry and sassy aunt. Close up, she appears delicate, even a little fragile. Yet both her mind and her strong hands convey the tempered steel bracing her still classic beauty. She has the nicest way of letting you know she brooks no nonsense.
Despite the knowledge of all she has accomplished and where life has taken her, you get the feeling that she has had a long and fruitful career teaching fourth-graders to appreciate poetry, to know their geography, to keep a civil tongue and always, always, to be proud of who they are and what they can accomplish.
Instead, it is through the example of her rich, turbulent life that Horne has taught her lessons--to a world that has had trouble understanding what she’s saying. Or, more to the point, who she is.
“I have these acquaintances,” she says, “who want me to be like Lena Horne when I’m around their friends, and if I’m not, they’re so disappointed.”
Everything that is real (as opposed to mythic) in Lena Horne can be found in that statement: the velvet-fisted wit, the keen, hard-won insight into the illusion-reality vagaries of public life and, more than anything, a zesty, if rueful acceptance of life’s balance of the bitter and the sweet.
She’ll be the first to tell you it took a long time to achieve such acceptance, both within herself and from those on the outside looking in. From the time she was an only child, being moved around from Northern cities to Southern towns to live with various relatives, she built up a protective shell, insulating herself from the harshness of personal insult and the risky rapture of love.
Building such defense mechanisms revealed an instinctive pragmatism that can be traced to Horne’s family background. Hers was an ancestry of strong-willed, public-spirited achievers. Her grandmother, Cora, served with distinction on both the NAACP and the Urban League. Her uncle, Frank Smith Horne, was a gifted poet and a member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s unofficial council on race relations.
Her parents had some of that same energy, but they were more dreamers than doers. Her mother, Edna, was an actress with the Lafayette Players whose career only went so far given the racist atmosphere of the early 20th Century. Her father, Teddy, was a civil servant who also gambled, hustled and ran numbers. Yet his aristocratic bearing impressed even the imperious MGM studio boss, Louis B. Mayer, who had listened intently in 1941 when Lena’s father demanded that she play no servants or any other role beneath her dignity.
By then, Horne had already established herself as a pop vocalist, a career to which her mother had guided her from the time Lena was 16, when she was in a chorus line in Harlem’s Cotton Club. In the late ‘30s, she’d taken time off from show business to marry, then divorce a Pittsburgh man who’d been a friend of her father’s. She also had two children. She also made friends with Billie Holiday, whose singing still awes Horne.
“I was singing at Cafe Society, which was a Greenwich Village nightclub,” Horne recalls. “And Billie had just finished singing there, and she was around the corner, at Kelly’s Stable, where I used to go at night to hear her sing. And they were trying to teach me to sing the blues and I said I don’t know how to sing those songs. I went to her and said, ‘What am I going to do? I don’t know how to sing the way you sing or feel the way you feel.’
“She says, ‘Darlin’ . . . you got babies. You got expenses. You gotta pay your rent. Sing anything you want, the way you want. Wear that hat because you have to survive!’ ”
Holiday was one of the many teachers whose wisdom Horne absorbed like a sponge. Count Basie was another. He was instrumental in convincing her that, despite her reservations, she needed to go to Hollywood to prove that black women could be more than maids: They could be screen sirens.
Horne didn’t play domestics in movies. But MGM didn’t know what else to do with her. In a memorable phrase from her 1965 autobiography, “Lena,” Horne said, “I became a butterfly pinned to a column singing away in Movieland.”
Horne describes her treatment by Hollywood in one of the more bittersweet segments in the just-released “That’s Entertainment! III,” which includes a sexy bubble-bath scene cut from 1943’s “Cabin in the Sky” so as not to offend white audiences.
Hassles aside, good things happened to Horne in Hollywood. Best of all, she says, was meeting Strayhorn, in 1942. From the moment they met, they became, in Horne’s words, “soul mates.”
“We seemed to latch onto each other at a time when I was very lonely,” Horne recalls. “He taught me so much about music, about life, about culture. He spoke French beautifully. He loved art. He was delicate, sensitive and he seemed to understand and accept me for what I was. I hadn’t known anyone like that.” The mystical bond between Strayhorn and Horne tightened in the years leading to his death, in 1967.
For Horne, they were especially turbulent years. Her movie career, however desultory, made her famous in the early ‘40s, especially among the GIs, black and white, who had adopted her as a pinup. Her sense of social outrage was aroused when, during a USO tour of American Army bases, she performed for an audience so segregated that German POWs were sitting in the front row while black soldiers were grouped behind them. She tried to direct her attention solely to the black GIs, but couldn’t. She stormed off the stage. Her rage stunned those who believed Horne was as reserved as she was pretty.
“I was supposed to be this nice, cute young thing who didn’t make any trouble, didn’t bother anybody, didn’t shake things up,” Horne recalls. “But I never forgot for a moment who I was or where I came from. It was the acceptance of my people that matters most to me.” Which was why it hurt her when many blacks reacted as virulently as whites to her marriage, in 1947, to Lennie Hayton, a white arranger and composer.
Shortly after her last MGM film, in 1950, Horne found herself snared by the anti-communist hysteria. Her friendship with singer and political activist Paul Robeson put her on the dreaded show-business “blacklist” that curtailed her performances on radio and television.
By the mid-'50s, she was off the hook enough to record and appear on TV variety shows. Her Broadway triumph in the 1957 musical, “Jamaica,” revitalized her career.
For Horne, the ‘60s began in a Beverly Hills restaurant when a white drunk, who was told he had to wait for service because Horne was being served, shouted a racial epithet. An ashtray, a table lamp and drinking glasses were hurled in his direction from Horne’s table.
The widely publicized incident signaled the beginning of Horne’s active participation in the civil rights movement. She marched, performed in rallies, pressed for federal action. No one would ever again mistake her for a passive “cute thing.”
By the early ‘70s, she had lost her husband, her father and her son, the latter due to kidney failure. It was tough, she says. “But it was all right. It was as if they were all preparing me for being alone.”
The word loneliness is one that slips furtively through Horne’s conversation. It is something she says she got used to early on. But her grandchildren are all close by. And so are spirits like Strayhorn, her parents, her grandmother.
“They keep me going on,” she says, “because I never want them to disrespect me. It sounds old-fashioned, but I don’t care.”