Nina Simone

When I started this project, I was thinking about Nina Simone quite a bit. Her music transcends labels and her improvisations and performances are like conduits directly from her heart and soul to ours. Although I’d been hip to her wonderful and singular voice for many years, I only learned about her incredible skills as a pianist a few years before. I bought a two-disc set of her music at Half Price Books and was listening to her on a drive from Austin up to Dallas and something about the way the piano and voice interplayed made me wonder if it was actually her accompanying herself. So I checked the liner notes when I stopped for gas and sure enough, I realized my incredible ignorance.

Once I learned she was also the pianist on these recordings, I started listening more carefully. The first thing that came to my attention was that she would seamlessly and effortlessly weave between hot, swinging riffs and chords, blue notes, and baroque sounding multi-part inventions in a style the defies genre. (For example, listen to her interpretation of Mood Indigo below) I thought she must have been classically trained and listened to a lot of Bach. Again, I checked the liner notes and found this quote from herself, “Once I understood Bach’s music, I wanted to be a concert pianist — Bach made me dedicate my life to music.” [1]

In fact, Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymon, was a child prodigy with big plans to be the first black female classical pianist to perform at Carnegie Hall (She must not have known about Hazel Scott). Her family recognized her genius very early on and nurtured her musical growth from the beginning. Eventually, she took piano lessons with Muriel Mazzanovich, an Englishwoman who lived in Simone’s hometown of Tyron, North Carolina. After graduating valedictorian of her high school class, the community raised funds to send her to Julliard for a summer program. She then applied for a scholarship to the Curtis Institute and gave a well-received audition, but was denied admission. She believed this was due to racial discrimination as there was no other explanation for the rejection.

In order to support herself and her family, who had already moved to Philadelphia in anticipation of her attendance at the Curtis Institute, she taught lessons and took up employment performing at a club in Atlantic City. Three things happened that summer in 1954 that would fundamentally change the shape of her career: She assumed the stage name, Nina Simone, to avoid offending her mother who thought of that sort of job as “working the fires of hell.” [2] She developed a unique style, drawing from the sum of her diverse musical background for repertoire — fusing her classical training with the spirituals from her mother’s church revivals, popular music of the day, show tunes, blues, and jazz. Finally, she was told she must sing if she wanted to keep the job. She never considered herself a singer before — only a pianist, but she needed the money, so she said yes. The rest, as they say, is history. Excerpts from Nadine Cohodas’ The Princess Noir beautifully describe her transition from Eunice Wayman to Nina Simone. You can read them here. [3]

Simone was a complex individual. Despite her success, she faced a great deal of darkness in her life: the enormity of racial injustice, domestic abuse, the pressures and demands of being a star performer, her music taking her in a different direction than she planned, and mental illness that remained undiagnosed until late in her life. Her daughter, Lisa, talks about this complexity in the documentary, “What Happened to Miss Simone?”

When she was performing, she was brilliant. She was loved. She was also a revolutionary. She found a purpose for the stage. A place from which she could use her voice to speak out for her people. But when the show ended, everybody else went home. She was alone and she was still fighting, but she was fighting her own demons. Full of anger and rage. She couldn’t live with herself and everything fell apart. [4]

As someone who has also dealt with mental illness both through my own depression and as a supporter of loved ones who have bipolar disorder, I can imagine how difficult it must have been for Simone and her family, friends, and collaborators. We are fortunate that doctors have a much better understanding of mental illness now than they did at that time and there are now medications and treatments that can really help to manage these conditions. All Simone had was her music.

Her pain was compounded by the infuriating events that were unfolding in our country during the Civil Rights movement. It is even more impressive to me that she was able to channel her anger and rage into music and to contribute to that movement through her art. She gave voice to things so many people were feeling, but were too afraid to say. For example, she wrote the tune Mississippi Goddamn as a response to the murder of activist, Medgar Evers and the deaths of four young black girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Unfortunately, we need her messages today just as much as we did when she was delivering them.

In addition to the powerful protest songs she wrote and performed, she wrote music in collaboration with other artists that empowered young black Americans and explored what it means to be a black woman: To be Young, Gifted and Black and Four Women, for example. She said, “My job is to make them curious about where they came from and their own identity and pride in that identity. That’s why my songs, I try to make them as powerful as possible. Mostly to make them curious about themselves.” [4]

Nina Simone was a celebrated and prolific artist, dubbed the “High Priestess of Soul.” The thing that strikes me most about Simone is that she was able to take her experiences and cumulatively assemble them into music that honors everything she learned up to that point and everything she was feeling in that moment. It is some of the most authentic music-making I’ve heard. Incidentally, she did perform at Carnegie Hall, though not playing Bach as she’d hoped, [5] and she was awarded several honorary degrees, including one from the Curtis Institute, two days before her death.

Whether or not she meant to be, she was indeed a jazzwoman. She was also a consummate musician, an artist, and a voice for the powerful and poignant messages that were necessary then and now. So here’s to you, Nina. Thank you for inspiring so many people with your uncompromising musicianship and humanity.

Nina Simone

(Re)Sources

[1] Liner notes for Nina Simone: Essential Early Recordings. Primo. 2010. 2 compact discs.

[2] Nathan, David, Ed Ward, Richard Seidel, Rob Bowman, Aaron Overfield, and Sarah Epler. “Bio.” ninasimone.com. 2018. http://www.ninasimone.com/bio/

[3] Cohodas, Nadine. Princess Noire: the tumultuous reign of Nina Simone. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010.

[4] Garbus, Liz, Amy Hobby, Justin Wilkes, Jayson Jackson, Igor Martinović, Rachel Morrison, Joshua L. Pearson, and Nina Simone. What happened, Miss Simone? 2016. (Available on Netflix)

[5] Live From Carnegie Hall: Nina Simone. Carnegie Hall Corporation. https://www.carnegiehall.org/Blog/2013/04/Live-from-Carnegie-Hall-Nina-Simone

Dahl, Linda. Stormy Weather: The Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984.

Johnson, David Brent. “The High Priestess Of Soul: Nina Simone In 5 Songs.” NPR. June 24, 2015. https://www.npr.org/sections/ablogsupreme/2015/06/24/416824244/the-high-priestess-of-soul-nina-simone-in-five-songs

Norris, Michelle. “Nina Simone: ‘The Princess Noire.'” NPR. March 3, 2010. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124276539

Piermont, Claudia Roth. “A Raised Voice: How Nina Simone turned the movement into music.” The New Yorker. August 11 & 18, 2014 Issue. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/08/11/raised-voice

Wikipedia contributors, “Nina Simone,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia,https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nina_Simone&oldid=875990574 (accessed January 2, 2019).

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