Nina Simone an artist whose time has finally come
Nina Simone was a talented American vocalist, pianist, songwriter, and arranger, who despite achieving a high level of success with her musical career, is equally well remembered for her many important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement at a critical juncture in our nation’s history. Classically trained as a child, Simone was a versatile musical artist who was seemingly comfortable working in a variety of forms. In addition to jazz, she made frequent forays into pop, blues and folk with the precision one might expect given her classical origins. In the summer of 2015, the release of director Liz Garbus’ documentary film What Happened, Miss Simone? inspired renewed interest in a thoughtful reexamination of the singer’s origins. The film follows Simone’s troubled path along a tumultuous professional career, and offers glimpses of the tortured genius beneath it all. But as many film critics and musical historians have pointed out in the subsequent months after its release, it was Simone’s youthful struggles as a most unwilling victim of institutionalized racism in higher musical education that truly marked both a starting point for her story and the beginning of difficult trials that would cause her to develop the remarkable courage she became known for. For a young African American girl, Eunice Waymon, growing up in Tryon, N.C. in the 1930s and dreaming of becoming a concert pianist, the future did not seem bright. This was the rural south—talented black children with high ambition and the perseverance to learn classical music were not given encouragement. Classical music was considered to be the domain of privileged white people with connections. There had been exceptions. There was a woman named Florence Price, from Little Rock, Ark., a composer who had her piece premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and there was the great contralto Marian Anderson, whose father sold ice in the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, who became an internationally famous concert singer. But largely, there seemed little future in classical music for most black children, regardless of talent. The 1930s in general was not a bad period for African American musical talent. The year 1933—when Eunice Waymon was born—was the year John Hammond first saw Billie Holiday perform at Covan’s on West 132nd Street, and the same year Duke Ellington released “Sophisticated Lady” (Ellington/Parish). Black blues and jazz musicians were retelling the story of American music on a nightly basis. However, the ones who brushed against the world of classical music tended not to be taken seriously. For the most part they were jazz composers and arrangers who prepared spirituals for symphony orchestras. And then came Eunice. The child of a jack-of-all-trades father and a revivalist-preacher mother who wanted to play Bach at Carnegie Hall. It says something about both the intensity and the talent of this child that people actually believed she could do it. “We knew she was a genius by the time she was three,” her brother remembered later. As a baby, she’d clap along in rhythm to the hymns at church; as a toddler, she could play tunes on the organ by ear. By the time she was 6 years old she was playing piano at her mother’s revival meetings, her feet barely reaching the pedals. Mrs. Waymon cleaned house for a white woman in Tryon, and this woman, hearing Eunice play one day with what you can only imagine was sheer disbelief, offered to do what Eunice’s family couldn’t—pay 75 cents a week so that Eunice could take lessons. Her teacher was another white woman, Mrs. Mazzanovich. Eunice walked two miles to her place for lessons every Saturday morning alone, crossing the railroad tracks. Mrs. Mazzanovich was a sophisticated lady. She was an English immigrant and the wife of a painter. But most importantly, Mrs. Mazzanovich realized exactly what she had found in Eunice and set out to make her a great classical musician. The girl practiced six to eight hours a day, every day, learning Bach, Chopin, Beethoven; she practiced etudes, arpeggios and scales. She’d later describe the loneliness of these years—the feeling that she was special, but remote and separate. Still, Eunice learned. Tryon came together as a community, both white and black, to support her. Miss “Mazzy,” as Eunice called her teacher, got together a fund to help launch her star pupil’s career. And with the help of that fund she made it into Juilliard in New York where she studied in the summer of 1950. Her teacher was an elderly German pianist named Carl Friedberg, who as a youth had studied with Clara Schumann. That’s how far Eunice had come: from the Jim Crow South to almost the living memory of Brahms. She must have felt as though her dream were opening up to receive her. Friedberg helped her prepare for what they believed would be the pivotal moment of her career—an audition at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. Eunice had chosen Curtis carefully. It offered scholarships to all of its students, a necessity, as Eunice’s fund from Tryon wouldn’t cover long-term study. Curtis would remove the constant worry and exhausting grind of money. It would make her an insider; it was where she would become what she felt she was meant to be. Eunice auditioned for Curtis in the spring of 1951, and she was rejected. How do you even start to categorize the pain she must have felt? She’d given her childhood to this ambition, come so close, and failed. She was split open. Eunice heard a rumor that she’d been rejected because she was black and she seized on that, although people close to the situation at Curtis later denied it. She tried to work out a plan for another audition, but by now she needed to work, too. There was pressure for her to help her family. After knocking around in various accompanist- and teaching-type jobs for a couple of years—studying when she could—she wound up in Atlantic City. Playing piano at the working-class, sawdust-covered floors of a bar called the Midtown paid the bills. But it seemed a far cry from Juilliard and Clara Schumann. The man who hired her told her she’d have to sing, too. Eunice had no vocal training, but she agreed because she needed the money. He asked for her name, and that was scary because Eunice didn’t want her conservative Methodist mother to find out she’d even set foot in a place like the Midtown, much less work there. Still, Eunice had to give the man who would employ her an answer. She thought for a second then said, “You can call me Nina Simone.” The feminist writer Germaine Greer once declared, “Every generation has to discover Nina Simone. She is evidence that female genius is real.” 2015 would seem to be the year that Nina Simone is discovered and rediscovered by many jazz fans from different generations. Simone’s bearing and stage presence inspired the UK’s daily newspaper, The Guardian, to label her the “High Priestess of Soul,” and that she was a piano player, singer and performer, “separately and simultaneously.” As a composer and arranger, Simone moved from gospel to blues, from jazz to folk and back effortlessly. Besides incorporating Bach-style counterpoint, she called upon the particular virtuosity of the 19th century Romantic piano repertoire: Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff and others. Onstage, she worked monologues and dialogues with the audience into the program, and often used silence as a musical element, comparing it to “ ... mass hypnosis. I use it all the time.” Percussionist Leopoldo Fleming and guitarist and musical director Al Schackman accompanied her throughout most of her life and recording career. Among Simone’s career highlights were the songs “I Loves You, Porgy” (Gershwin/Gershwin), “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” (Cox), “Trouble In Mind” (Jones), “I Put a Spell On You” (Hawkins/Slatkin), “Mississippi Goddamn” (Simone), and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (Simone and Irving).” My personal favorite was her compelling rendition of singer/songwriter Janis Ian’s “Stars,” which was highlighted in What Happened, Miss Simone? Musicians who have cited Simone as an important influence on their own musical development include: Elton John (who named one of his pianos after her), Van Morrison, Christina Aguilera, Mos Def, Kanye West, Lena Horne, Bono, John Legend, Cat Stevens, Peter Gabriel, Mary J. Blige, Lauryn Hill, Alicia Keys and Jeff Buckley. John Lennon cited Simone’s version of “I Put a Spell on You” as a particular source of inspiration for the Beatles hit, “Michelle” (Lennon/McCartney). But the question may be asked—since Nina Simone had the most prolific portion of her career nearly half a century ago—why is there a veritable flood of interest in her now? “Nina has never stopped being relevant, because her activism was so right, so unique, and strong, said with such passion and directness,” Liz Garbus said inan interview for The New York Times conducted at a Brooklyn bakery. “But why ... now?” Garbus asked and answered her own question by pointing out how little much has changed, and citing the protests over the shootings of unarmed African-Americans Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray in conflicts with the police. While Simone’s lyrical indictment of racial segregation and her work on behalf of civil rights organizations connects her to our contemporary angst over racism, those closest to her would have felt more comfortable telling Simone’s story immediately after her death in 2003. Much of that storytelling was delayed until now due to very practical and legal considerations. “From a filmmaking point of view, the answer for (the timing of) her return is ... because of the estate, and (of) people being (finally) ready to relinquish some control of her story,” Garbus says. In this case, it was Simone’s daughter, the singer and actress Lisa Simone Kelly, who shared personal diaries, letters and audio and video footage with Ms. Garbus, and also has an executive producer credit on the film. From her mother’s former home in Carry-le-Rouet, France, Kelly told The New York Times, “It has been on my watch that this film was made. And I believe that my mother would have been forgotten if the family, my husband and I had not taken the right steps to find the right team for her to be remembered in American culture on her own terms.” Kelly is only partly right. Over the last decade, a steady stream of reissued albums and previously unheard interviews, songs and unseen concert footage have flooded the market. But the estate has simultaneously enabled and impaired Simone’s revival. There has been a dizzying array of lawsuits over the rights to her master recordings in the last 25 years, a tangled situation that includes a recent move by Sony Music to rescind a deal with the estate altogether. The most high-profile controversy over Simone’s legacy, however, involves another motion picture. Cynthia Mort’s film biography, Nina, was due for release early in 2015, but was stalled by these legal entanglements. Eventually, the film’s release was set back even more by Mort’s own 2014 lawsuit against the production company, which she accused of “hijacking the film,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The successful purchase of the North American film rights to Mort’s Nina by well-known black entrepreneur Robert Johnson in September has given confidence to many industry insiders that the film biography will finally escape the many complex legal issues that have delayed its long-awaited theatrical release. Starring popular actress Zoe Saldana in the title role, the film was initially beleaguered by public criticism over the casting. The antagonism was further fueled by leaked photos of the naturally light- complexioned face of Saldana featuring darkened skin with makeup and a nose prosthetic. “I didn’t think I was right for the part,” Saldana told InStyle magazine. An online petition calling for a boycott of the film revealed how deep the cultural divide really was, even just a few years ago. However, today there is a current philosophical agreement with Simone’s politics and admiration of the reality of her physical attributes by a new generation of admirers, who do not wish to see either film edited for the benefit of a supposed, wider public acceptance. Nina Simone is an artist whose time has finally come. Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist, and devoted music fan. He is a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.