With a name like Jazzmeia Horn, the Dallas-born singer seemed destined to become a jazz star. But when she was younger, it was the last style on her mind.
"I was like, 'This is old people's music,'" Horn, 26, says with laugh, recalling her first impression of a jazz compilation CD given to her by Roger Boykin, her teacher at Dallas' Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
Despite her initial reaction, she kept listening to the CD. By the time she came to songs by vocalist Sarah Vaughan, Horn was hooked.
"I was like 'Whoa!'" she says by phone from her home in New York City. "She was scatting and improvising. ... I'd never heard anything like that before. It knocked my socks off."
Vaughan's influence on Horn is crystal-clear on A Social Call, her debut album for Prestige Records, the legendary jazz label (now owned by Concord Music) that was once home to Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. The album comes out May 12.
It's a bold, far-reaching disc, with songs associated with Vaughan ("I Remember You") Coltrane ("Afro-Blue") and R&B star Mary J. Blige ("I'm Goin Down"). Yet the album is firmly based in gospel, too, as Horn dives deep into old spirituals like "Wade in The Water."
Horn caught the gospel bug early. As a toddler, she started singing at Dallas' Golden Chain Missionary Baptist Church, where her grandfather, the Rev. B.L. Horn, is pastor. Her whole family was part of the church band and choir, including her late, jazz-loving grandmother, who anointed her Jazzmeia.
"When I was young, it was weird to me if you couldn't sing," says Horn, who's simply "Jazz" to her friends.
"Everyone I knew was able to sing and play some type of instrument. From the moment I started singing, I knew I didn't want to be a doctor or a lawyer. I just knew music was my destiny."
After falling under the spell of Vaughan's music, Horn immersed herself in the records of Betty Carter, Rachelle Ferrell and Stevie Wonder. The Oak Cliff native graduated from Booker T. — the launch pad for jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, not to mention Norah Jones, Erykah Badu and Edie Brickell — and moved to New York City to study at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
In 2013, after winning three student awards from DownBeat, Horn took home the first-place trophy at the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Two years later, she won the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition in Los Angeles.
But she didn't get much time to celebrate. After winning the Monk award and meeting luminaries like Herbie Hancock, Horn had to hurry backstage to feed her then-infant daughter, Ma'at.
Now 2, Ma'at interrupts today's interview with a burst of high-pitched scat-singing before asking for a piece of chocolate. The treat tides her over for a few minutes, but soon she's back and hungry for Mom's attention.
"It's very, very challenging," she says, of trying to balance her career while raising Ma'at and her 4-month-old sister, Seshat. "The 2-year-old is a world-traveler: She's been to Japan, Italy, Germany and she's going with me to Australia and China in a few months. But it's really difficult taking them both on the road."
After returning from overseas, Horn will tour the U.S., including, she hopes, a hometown show in Dallas in June. But even as she's on the promotional gerbil wheel for her debut album, she's already plotting her second record. She's written a slew of new songs filled with the same point-blank social commentary she put into a poem on A Social Call: Speaking calmly over a hypnotic rhythm, Horn ticks off a list of problems in our society — racism, pollution, poverty, police brutality and on and on.
"It's a conversation I have whenever I visit people and they ask me what's on my mind ... that's why the album's called A Social Call," she says. "I feel like the [burdens] of the world are on my shoulders sometimes ... I really shouldn't, but I do. That's my reality."