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When the pandemic hit, Dallas-raised singer Jazzmeia Horn took charge

The jazz musician wrote a book, taught college courses and financed her third album.

Jazzmeia Horn
Jazzmeia Horn lost her usual paycheck in 2020 when concerts shut down because of the pandemic. But rather than wallow, the Grammy-nominated vocalist started her own label, Empress Legacy Records, and financed and recorded her third album, “Dear Love,” which is out now. Photo Credit/ Empress Legacy Records

By Thor Christensen

Like many musicians, Dallas-raised singer Jazzmeia Horn lost her usual paycheck in 2020 when concerts shut down because of the pandemic. But she refused to lose her spirit.

Rather than wallowing in pandemic ennui, the Grammy-nominated vocalist shifted into high gear. She wrote a book, taught university courses on how to be a jazz musician, started her own label, Empress Legacy Records, and financed and recorded her third album, Dear Love, which came out Sept. 10.

And she did it all while raising her two young daughters. Horn, who attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, now lives in New York City, where we caught up with her by phone.

The interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

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Jazzmeia Horn
Jazzmeia Horn says “Dear Love” marks the first time a woman has arranged, produced, written, sung and recorded a big-band album in the history of jazz. Photo Credit/ Empress Legacy Records

Dear Love is an extremely bold album, with its fusion of big-band jazz, spoken-word poetry and your usual elastic singing. What were you aiming for?

I was thinking about the Harlem Renaissance and bringing back those old traditions of poetry and high-energy big-band jazz. I really love the big-band albums by Clifford Brown with strings, Nancy Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves. Most of them waited until they were 40 or 50 to do big-band records, but I just turned 30, and in my eyes, I’m like, “Why can’t I do it now? Why do I have to wait?”

My poetry and lyrics were definitely inspired by Maya Angelou, who also sang jazz and had a profound love for jazz music, as well as Meshell Ndegeocello and Jill Scott. There are so many people I’m inspired by. I’m really just trying to take the torch and run with it, and hopefully pass it on to someone else.

You arranged most of the songs on the new album, the first time you’ve done that with such a large group. What was that experience like?

Well, we’re doing a documentary film with the album because I’m the first woman to arrange, produce, write, sing and record a big-band album in the history of jazz. No other woman has done it.

To be completely honest, arranging was an extremely humbling experience. Oh, man, it was a lot of work. It was harder than delivering a baby in the hospital.

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One of the album’s standout tracks is “Strive (To Be),” an experimental song about overcoming challenges that reminded me at times of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. How did the song come about?

Last May, I was thinking about the world being in chaos, and not knowing if I was going to be able to go on tour ever again. And I said, “You know what? I have to be the eye of the hurricane. Just strive to be me. Strive to be free.” Even though everything is shut down, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop creating my music.

Record companies told me they didn’t have the budget to do this big-band record. I said “Fine.” I’m going to do it on my own. Screw you guys. You don’t have to live by what someone else thinks of you. Strive to be what you want to be. And that’s really where that song came from.

“Where We Are” seems to be about sexism and the importance of family. What inspired that song?

I think that’s accurate. It’s really meant to uplift woman in this very misogynistic society, especially as jazz musicians, where men kind of run the industry, the clubs, the record companies, everything.

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I love men. But this is specifically about women and for women. My mother carried me for those nine months into the universe, and even today, I can still call and say, “Mom, I had a really [expletive] day,” and she’ll still embrace me, you know? And then I think about my love for my children, how that is passed down through the (DNA) and how that love is always there.

My mom loves all the songs I write, but she especially loves this one.

Jazzmeia Horn
Jazzmeia Horn inserted a comma into her cover of a Beatles’ hit for a subtle but important difference: “Money Can’t Buy Me, Love.” Photo Credit/ Empress Legacy Records

You totally reinvent the Beatles’ classic “Can’t Buy Me Love” on the new album. Why did you choose that song?

That was actually one of the pop tunes we played when I was in an emo rock band in high school, when we were doing Nirvana and System of a Down songs and I didn’t know much about jazz at all.

I really wanted to expand on the Beatles’ idea, which is why I put the comma in there and titled it “Money Can’t Buy Me, Love.” With slavery, there were a lot of people that were actually bought, and this is my way of saying I can’t be bought: not just my love, but me as a person. I’m not for sale.

There’s a jazz tune, “Love for Sale,” which I never sang and I never will. But I’m OK with singing “Money Can’t Buy Me, Love” because that’s a different message.

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When the pandemic shut down touring last year, you published a book for aspiring jazz musicians (Strive From Within: The Jazzmeia Horn Approach) and began teaching classes, both online and in person, at places like Harvard, the Berklee College of Music and the City University of New York. Those projects helped you finance and release Dear Love. How did they all come about?

When I graduated college, I felt like there were a lot of holes in my learning. So the book is basically me talking about all the different things in the industry they’re not teaching you in the university, right?

After I released the book, I started my own online school and offered private lessons — our enrollment this year is about 1,000 — and I then I reached out to universities with my online course and said, “Hey, can I teach a workshop?”

All of these schools love it because I’m an educator, but I’m also in the industry, touring and releasing albums and starting my own record company. So I can actually teach from experiences, and I’m 30, so I’m still hip to what the students like. I still have an ability to really connect with them and educate them about what they need to know to better their career, better their business, and better their lives as musicians, all of which I think are very important.

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