Paul Horn began playing the piano at the age of four. By ten he was also playing the clarinet and by twelve, he had added the saxophone to his repertoire as well. Needless to say, then, the fact that he went on to pursue a career in music (studying the clarinet and flute at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, and then obtaining a master's degree from the Manhattan School of Music) was no surprise to anyone.
After finishing school, Horn moved to Los Angeles for a job with Chico Hailton's quintet. He played professionally with them from 1956 to 1958. Two years later, he recorded his debut album Something Blue. By then, he was already an established session player on the West Coast; his resume included Duke Ellington Orchestra's Suite Thursday and collaborations with the likes of Tony Bennett and Nat King Cole. He also scored the 1959 animated television series Clutch Cargo. However, his most celebrated and groundbreaking work was still to come.
Driven by his personal spiritual beliefs (Horn was a known practitioner of Transcendental Meditation), the musician and composer began a series of album recordings that he called "Inside." They were haunting, echoing sounds that Horn created by playing innovative melodies (typically relying heavily on metal and/or traditional wooden flutes) inside famous places of religious or spiritual importance. The first in the series was the result of Horn sneaking a tape recorder into the Taj Mahal while on a trip to India in 1968 with the Beatles. That recording was released as Inside, and its popularity within the New Age music world led to the release of several others: one recorded inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, one from the interior of a cathedral, one from the sacred canyons of the Southwest United States (recorded with celebrated Native American flautist R. Carlos Nakai) and even one featuring the soothing sounds of orca whales.
In 1998, Horn was granted permission to record within the walls of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet – a massive structure revered immensely by Tibetan Buddhists. He was the first westerner to ever be allowed to perform within this sacred space – and in 2003, he returned to Tibet to film on the holy Mount Kailash, where he also scattered the ashes of his dear friend, Buddhist monk Lama Tenzin.
It is these anecdotes that set Paul Horn apart from other American musicians. While he can be objectively classified as a great jazz musician, his fascination with and resulting incorporation of spiritual practices and rituals were what made his music something truly undefinable. Aside from his legendary Inside series, he also left us an impressive number of mainstream jazz recordings that featured musicians from all across the globe.
Horn's success made him a six-time Grammy nominee, and he also played for a while with the NBC Staff Orchestra. In addition, he did some film acting (credits include The Rat Race and Sweet Smell of Success) and he was the subject of the television documentary The Story of a Jazz Musician. His 1966 album Jazz Suite on the Mass Texts won a Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition. However, through it all, his deep love of New Age and World Music remained obvious:
"New Age music does something wonderful to the nervous system," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1987. "It settles you down into a deep state of relaxation. When people want to 'cool out,' a [New Age] record will do it real quick. It's meditative music."