"Nobody takes the soul form seriously," Marvin Gaye once said. According to him, black musicians who imbedded meaningful lyrics into their material only confused their audiences. However, as doo-wop harmonies and jitterbug fever ruled popular music in 1958, another wind was blowing in an Atlantic City bar called the Midtown. For the last four years, a mysterious lounge pianist had been playing an incomparable blend of jazz, folk, blues, and standards woven together with the poise and grace of a classical musician. Nina Simone—a stage name conceived to hide Eunice Waymon from her mother's disapproval—found herself creating a legacy that would affect not just music history but also social movements.
Pier 62/63, Friday, August 21
Born in Tryon, North Carolina, in December 1932, Eunice virtually moved from womb to keyboard. Praised by an equally dynamic family, it was only a matter of time before she began accompanying her mother, an outspoken minister who traveled for the Methodist church. Despite her dim view of secular music, Mary Waymon enrolled her daughter in piano lessons with the help of a benevolent employer, in hopes of nurturing America's first black concert pianist. While many children her age might have crumbled under the weight of such high expectations, Eunice flourished.
Graduating from high school as valedictorian in 1950, the pianist's passion was Beethoven, Czerny, and Liszt. The opportunity for further musical study beckoned, and Eunice left for New York City's prestigious Julliard School of Music. Setting up residence in Harlem with a preacher friend of her mother's, she was amazed by the neighborhood's tough exuberance. After a year at Julliard, she applied to the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, where her family had relocated.
The plan floundered when Curtis declared her Not Good Enough. Friends later suggested the rejection had more to do with the color of her skin than her interpretation of Bach. Eunice was devastated on every level, deliberately taking jobs that were monotonous and unrelated to music. However, the reality of her talent and passion didn't remain suppressed. With encouragement from her older brother and her piano teacher, she began accompanying a local singing instructor, teaching popular hits and standards to teenagers with questionable ability. Eventually she held her own tutorials in her storefront apartment, which doubled as a practice space.
When a student bragged about his cushy summer booking talent for an Atlantic City bar and grill, Eunice's ambitions to perform were ignited. That 1956 summer saw the birth of Nina Simone. Although the name fit, the club environment was less comfortable. Offered a drink at an early gig, she asked for milk, proceeding to sip it elegantly at the bar.
By 1958 she was playing New York clubs and concert halls with two albums behind her, riding on the success of her winsome rendition of George Gershwin's "I Loves You, Porgy." Despite her success in the jazz medium, she longed for the civilities of the classical milieu. Simone's first (and last) performance before the notoriously difficult Apollo Theater crowd was interrupted by a lesson in manners, which she delivered sternly.
Nina continued to make the rules. She created her own territory, defying categorization. Whether singing popular standards or her own songs, she delivers every line with conviction. When she sings, "My back is strong/Strong enough to take the pain again" (from "Four Women") she speaks for herself, for every woman, and then some.
She derived much of her early strength from her association with influential thinkers like Langston Hughes. James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka). These people became Nina's spiritual and social backbone in a time when social change loomed.
Her own songs echoed these connections. Nina had viewed protest songs as tepid and unintelligent, but the torrid '60s moved her beyond the point of simple intolerance, and she began to sing for the civil rights movement. She penned the anthemic "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black" in response to Hansberry's untimely death from cancer. Likewise, "Mississippi Goddamn" was written to protest the murder of Medgar Evers. (Both of these songs appear on a brand-new double-CD, The Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl 19671972, which also includes several previously unreleased tracks.)
Thirty years later, the fire remains in Nina Simone, but the optimism is gone. She bemoans the fate of her people, loathes rap music, and sympathizes with Michael Jackson. Long ago, she retreated to Africa and the Caribbean. Now she scuba dives in the south of France, claiming to love the sea more than music. Yet when her incomparable jazz partitas wash over us, her claims are hard to believe.