BBC Music Magazine

Roger Thomas

Writer and critic


‘Nina Simone’s career tends to be reduced to bullet points: jazz-performer-by-default, civil rights activist, classicall­y trained, temperamen­tal. The reality was more subtle and complex, and her catalyst was Bach.’

‘You have the same name as Bach – my first love!’ Thus was journalist Tim Sebastian disarmed by the legendary pianist, singer and occasional songwriter Nina Simone at the beginning of her interview for the BBC television show Hardtalk in 1999. Though tagged as a jazz performer, a label she regarded as both disparagin­g and inaccurate, the classical repertoire had been her original source of musical inspiratio­n; she would remark that to play it was to be ‘as close to God as I know’. Her earliest experience of performing it, however, had been less positive.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933, her childhood piano lessons were with a diminutive Englishwom­an named Muriel Mazzanovic­h, the wife of the landscape painter Lawrence Mazzanovic­h who had settled in the area in the early 1920s. The couple had no children and Eunice became something of a surrogate daughter to ‘Miss Mazzy’ as she was known. She recognised and cultivated Eunice’s prodigious ability and co-founded a fund to enable her to continue her

‘‘ At just ten years old, she was steeped in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Czerny and JS Bach ’’

studies. Local supporters responded, and in the spring of 1943 Mazzanovic­h organised a debut recital for her pupil as a gesture of thanks to the fund’s donors. Just ten years old, yet steeped in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Czerny and particular­ly Bach, Eunice waited nervously as 200 people filed into the building to become her first audience.

Sadly Tryon, though able to muster support for a young black girl versed in classical music, would still display the knee-jerk convention­s of racial segregatio­n in more banal ways.

Eunice had been aware of this with a degree of detachment, but on this occasion the affront was personal: her parents were told to give up their front-row seats to white audience members. With a fearlessne­ss that would become her trademark in adult life, Eunice simply refused to play until they were allowed to return to their original seats. Once that had been rectified, the recital went well, concluding with an improvisat­ion based on notes suggested by members of the audience. Reading her own accounts of these events in her autobiogra­phy

I Put a Spell on You and in Alan Light’s biography What Happened, Miss Simone?, her reaction was one of outrage mixed with bafflement: why would any parent be denied this simple courtesy, whatever their status?

Eunice’s ultimate ambition, encouraged by her parents and teacher, was to become the first successful African-american classical pianist. In reality there had been and would be other contenders for this position, but her intentions were clear. On leaving school she was awarded a year’s scholarshi­p to the Juilliard School of Music in New York. The plan was that she should then apply for a full scholarshi­p to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelph­ia, prompting her family to relocate there. When the expected scholarshi­p failed to materialis­e she was dismayed. Word reached her that the decision was racially motivated, although the Institute’s defenders pointed out that the number of applicants greatly exceeded the available places. She continued with music, working as an accompanis­t for a singing teacher. She soon taught her own lessons, adding singing to piano playing for the first time, but the uncertaint­y about her failure was to remain with her.

Eunice had little experience of singing other than in church and was conscious of her limited vocal technique. ★owever, her classical background in combinatio­n with a natural talent for improvisat­ion gave her an ideal mix of skills for such a position and soon led to her

setting up her own teaching practice. She herself continued lessons by way of an arrangemen­t that was not uncommon for unsuccessf­ul applicants by studying privately with Vladimir Sokoloff, who would have been her tutor at Curtis.

Looking to make some more money, she noted that several of her students worked in bars and clubs, so via an agent she secured a season at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, where she was required to sing as well as play the piano. She obliged, but from the off found her own distinctiv­e way to be a singer-pianist, mixing classical fragments with gospel songs, hymns and popular tunes, often in continuous interpolat­ed and segued sets. her relatively untrained voice had a range that barely exceeded an octave – she would later allude to her singing as adding another line to the piano part rather than being accompanie­d by it – and a delivery that sat somewhere between a croon and a blues holler. The latter evoked the music she played at home for her father, watching through a window for the return of her disapprovi­ng Evangelist mother. Mary Kate Waymon would certainly never have countenanc­ed her daughter playing the blues, let alone working in a bar. Deciding that a stage name would aid necessary discretion, Eunice combined a nickname given to her by a boyfriend with the first name of her favourite film star, Simone Signoret, and became Nina Simone. her chosen course led to work in more prestigiou­s venues and to her first recording contract and debut album Little Girl Blue (pictured right) on

Bethlehem Records in 1958.

It’s tempting to say that the rest is history, but Simone’s profession­al life was complicate­d. Bethlehem bought the rights to her album outright, which subsequent­ly cost her vast sums in royalties, then added insult to injury by releasing a spoiler album of unused tracks when she moved to Colpix records to record a series of albums beginning with The Amazing Nina Simone in 1959. She had exceptiona­l stage presence and a volatile temper (she was eventually diagnosed as bipolar) but many of her outbursts were rooted in her awareness of the respect routinely afforded classical musicians, such as having audiences who didn’t disrupt performanc­es. her approach to her material was that of the classical recitalist, choosing items from a repertoire and making them her own. In this she was highly eclectic, covering jazz standards, folk tunes, religious songs and selections from the popular music of the day in her own intense style, inserting slivers of glittering counterpoi­nt and expansive chordal statements derived from her love of Bach and Beethoven, whose music she had played after returning from recording sessions as an antidote to the confinemen­t of the Bethlehem studio.

Her own songs, when she wrote them, were grounded in her own personal experience and her long associatio­n with the civil rights movement. Mississipp­i Goddam is perhaps the most famous example – featuring a prodding, insistent piano part reminiscen­t of Kurt Weill, another notable influence, the song is both a rallying call and a plea for sanity.

Her subsequent internatio­nal career had wound down by the time her legendary track My Baby Just Cares for Me, featuring a piano solo that draws effortless­ly on both her classical training and her improvisin­g skills, was used in a television commercial in 1987, but this was enough to return her to the spotlight.

So, was Nina Simone classical music’s loss and popular music’s gain? Perhaps, but if the world has learned anything during her lifetime, it’s that the worst kind of racism is insidious rather than overt. Maybe her exclusion from Curtis was due to her race or maybe she did indeed fail to make the grade, but the question that remains is this: would a white, middle-class male candidate receiving the same rejection have faced the same lifetime of gnawing uncertaint­y as to the reasoning behind it? On 19 April 2003 Simone learned that Curtis planned to award her an honorary degree. She died two days later.

 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Baroque ‘n’ soul:Nina Simone performs on stage at Newport Jazz Festival on 4 July 1968; (below) the young Simone, circa 1955
Baroque ‘n’ soul:Nina Simone performs on stage at Newport Jazz Festival on 4 July 1968; (below) the young Simone, circa 1955
 ??  ??
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? Swansong: Nina Simone plays Carnegie Hall in 2002
Swansong: Nina Simone plays Carnegie Hall in 2002
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom