Nina Simone looked racism in its eye and continued to perform for the masses
Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933, to John Divine Waymon (who worked as a barber, dry-cleaner and an entertainer to make ends meet), and Mary Kate Irvin, a Methodist preacher. 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 recognized and cultivated Eunice’s prodigious ability and co-founded a fund to enable her to continue her studies.
In the spring of 1943, Mazzanovich organized a debut recital for her Nina Simone 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, the young Nina waited nervously as 200 people filled 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. Nina 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, she 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.
Nina Simone’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. Ms. Simone 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 materialize, 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 remained inside.
Nina had little experience of singing other than in church and was conscious of her limited vocal technique. However, 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.
Nina Simone’s Career Takes Flight
In 1958, Nina Simone landed her first recording contract and released her debut album “Little Girl Blue” on Bethlehem Records. Shortly after, Simone’s professional life became complicated when Bethlehem bought the rights to her album. This subsequently cost her vast sums in royalties, then added insult to injury by releasing a spoiler album of unused tracks.
In 1959, Nina moved to Colpix Records to record a series of albums beginning with “The Amazing Nina Simone.” Her 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, this was enough to return her to the spotlight.
Much of Nina Simone’s recorded legacy is derived from live performances and is unfortunately awash with releases of questionable provenance and endlessly reshuffled compilations of varying quality. “The Very Best of Nina Simone” released by Sony is a compilation of her best-known work and includes a variety of songwriters that inspired her, ranging from George and Ira Gershwin to Randy Newman. This compilation includes her extraordinary take on ‘Ain’t Got No/I Got Life’ from the musical Hair,’ often omitted from others, which sees her transforming the hippie anthem into a glorious celebration of identity and self-esteem.
On April, 21 2003, Ms. Nina Simone died of breast cancer. Her ashes were scattered in Africa. If the world has learned anything during her lifetime, it’s that the worst kind of racism is insidious rather than overt. STAY WOKE!
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