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Interviews

"Simone": Honoring the Legacy of Nina Simone

By Published: March 14, 2006

S: That's true! I remember going to school, and Stokely Carmichael had maybe one or two unflattering sentences, and Malcolm X got maybe a paragraph, and Martin Luther King might have gotten a page. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

Was Nina Simone a "Jazz Singer?

AAJ: Let's talk about Nina Simone's music. You must have thought about it—her style, her voice, etc. She had a very powerful way of singing. Plus she was a miracle worker on the piano.

S: Remember that her dream was to be a classical pianist. If her dream had come true, maybe she would have stayed quiet the rest of her life and not become a Freedom Fighter! That was her dream, and her approach to performing was always that of a classical pianist, the way that she sat, the balance that she demanded, and the respect that she commanded. And in her approach to playing, she always incorporated something classical into her repertoire.

AAJ: Which jazz singers and instrumentalists did she herself particularly admire?

S: Well actually, I remember what she used to listen to around the house. When we were in Africa, she listened to Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley. She loved Frank Sinatra. Miriam Makeba. In interviews during the early '60s, she talked about how she loved Otis Redding. She loved Bob Dylan—she thought he was a saint.

AAJ: Surprisingly, you haven't mentioned any strictly mainstream jazz musicians.

S: No, because, well, I never considered mom "jazz, and she never considered herself "jazz.

AAJ: Is that right? I always thought of her as a jazz artist!

S: The world gave her that description as a jazz performer.

AAJ: It wasn't just PR, it was her choice of ensembles and the tunes she did, not to mention her style of playing, which was distinctly in a post-swing and post-bebop mode.

S: She also did the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Mama Kass, Paul Anka, Jacques Brel.

AAJ: She certainly spread her wings into wider horizons than jazz, but her early recordings and performances were very much in the jazz syntax.

S: That's true. The concert we'll be doing at Town Hall, that's a jazz set. But that's before she went through the changes we talked about.

AAJ: There's no shame in being a jazz singer, is there?

S: There's no shame in it, Vic, but I believe it's a misnomer. For some reason, the industry has to box you in with a single adjective. Mommy was not a jazz artist. That's a misconception. She was extremely versatile and did all kinds of music. In the Foreword that I wrote for the re-release of Silk and Soul CD that just came out this month, I talk about this issue. When I was a teen-ager, I realized she was always being described as a jazz artist, I asked her myself, "How would you describe your music? And she said, "International.

AAJ: Well, that's ultimately what she evolved into—a diverse international singer—but indulge me. Jazz musicians whom I know don't like to be boxed in either. But I happen to love jazz, as do many of our readers, and I don't consider it a limited art form. Nina Simone certainly influenced jazz in major ways. So I ask myself, did she ever listen to John Coltrane, Miles Davis? Her jazz contemporaries were doing incredible things musically.

S: I think a portion of her career was strictly jazz. At the beginning, she played in church. Then she did classical. Then she did jazz. Then she went international. How's that?

AAJ: I'm not trying to box your mother into a category. One of my interests is influences—whose music affected whom. What gave them their ideas, etc? So far, I hear about classical, popular, and world music influences on Nina Simone.

S: Well, that's what we played in our house.

AAJ: That's interesting and important in itself. Yet I hear profound jazz influences in her singing—Coltrane...

S: Thelonious Monk.

AAJ: They were all in New York around the same time.

S: You have to keep in mind that I was born in the early sixties, so there's a lot of stuff I don't remember. There are facts that you or others might concentrate on which I was not so much exposed to. All I can tell you is what I remember being played around the house in the '60s when we'd listen to Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell, Otis Redding and Freda Payne, Band of Gold. class="f-right s-img"> Return to Index...

About "Simone Herself—As Person, Daughter and Performer

AAJ: Now, how are you similar to and different from your mother?

S: Physically, I have my mother's hands to the T. I have her walk. My aunty Zanzii, which is my pet name for Miriam Makeba, said to me—at my mother's funeral—that I have my mother's walk. I look like my father, but I have my mother's body. I have her temper, but I feel that I have it a bit more under control, perhaps because I didn't grow up with the same demons that she did.

AAJ: Your career track is different from hers—you've been an actress in the musical theater.

S: I didn't decide to do this for a living initially. I was in the U.S. Air Force for almost ten years. I did civil engineering, which is like being on another planet. I was about eight years into my enlistment when music touched my life again. I was stationed at Rhein Main Air Base in Frankfurt, Germany at the time. I started doing background singing for someone at the time, and I said to myself, wait a second, maybe I could do this. So when musicians started asking me if I was interested in doing some of my own shows, the fire was ignited in my belly, much to both of my parents' horror (laughter), and I knew I owed it to myself to give music a try.

AAJ: What are some of your own career highlights?

S: I appreciated having been exposed to various girl groups, and I even did the female part in the Magic Platters. But of the highlights, it would be my theater experience. It really tested my desire to be in this industry. I rose to the top really quickly. I've only done three shows in my theater career: Jesus Christ Superstar; Rent, and Aida.

AAJ: Huge box office hits.

S: Yeah, and everybody dies at the end! (laughter) I went from being a virtual ensemble person in Superstar, which was a non-union "bus and truck, to Broadway. Rent, my second stint, was on Broadway. Musical theater is very hard. I've never taken acting lessons and I never considered being an actress either, so that was something that kind of took me by surprise. It really challenged my desire to want to be an entertainer. It showed me how to respect my body and my voice, take care of my voice, and to abide by that saying, "No matter how you're feeling, the show must go on.

AAJ: So since you came up in the business, you've really had a life in the theater.

S: I chose to be in music in the early 1990s, and had about five years of doing non-theater musical work before theater took me under its wing. I did theater for a couple of years and took a couple of years off. But my dream is not theater. It is not exactly to walk in my mother's footsteps, but to retrace parts of her journey in terms of some of the places she performed, like the Olympia and Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and all that.

AAJ: Sounds like your goal is to have your own act.

S: Yes. I write, sing, record. I have something to say. I don't write about bling-bling and all of that. I write about real life issues. That's my dream, and theater has only helped me to hone my craft and build my confidence in myself as a full entertainer, not just a singer.

AAJ: You have an exciting, multifaceted career, past, present, and future.

S: Definitely. I don't have to wonder what I'm going to be doing for the next twenty years of my life.

AAJ: And you're going to sing at the Deer Head Inn, at Delaware Water Gap, PA on April 15th. What are you going to perform there?

S: Basically, pianist Bobby Durough and Mom's musicians and I are going to do a glimpse of what we're going to do the following week in Town Hall, in a more intimate setting, and maybe for folks who won't be able to get to the Town Hall concert.

AAJ: I've been to the Deer Head a number of times. You'll love it.

S: I've never performed there.

AAJ: You'll be in good company there.

S: I'm looking forward to it. By the way, speaking of dates, do you know the significance of April 21st? Mommy passed away on that date in 2003. She performed at Town Hall before I was born on a date that ended up being my birthday, September 12th, and I'm performing at Town Hall three years after she died, to the date, April 21st.

AAJ: Those are striking synchronicities. Just a couple of more questions. One that I ask often, and which is of great interest to me and the readers, is about spirituality. What is it for you personally that gives meaning to your life? Do you have a spiritual orientation or practice? Tell us a little about what gives you a sense of the whole and a sense of meaning.

S: Knowing that we're not alone. Knowing that this life here is not all that there is. I walk in faith every day. I have journals I've kept for the last ten years, and every time I read through them, I'm able to see how far I've come in my life, how much I've learned, and I'm always reminded to be thankful. I know that I have a purpose. My mother had a purpose. We all have a purpose. That's why we're here. And I feel as if my purpose since mom has passed has become crystal clear. I always told her that she was the doorway through which I had to walk in order to achieve my own destiny. I just did not know how prophetic that was.

So, in order for me to be the person that I am today and to give to world what I plan on giving and to carry on this legacy, I have to walk in faith. And that means just letting go and letting God. As hard as that is, because I'm a "control freak (laughter.) It's important to know that everything has its own time, and this probate I've been dealing with, while so many Nina Simone things have been coming out, have shown me the value of that. The results of this probate, and me fighting for my legacy, has helped me to dig in in terms of my faith, and knowing that might is right. The blood I have running through my veins is what's going to help me be victorious.

AAJ: A powerful statement. What we've talked about today is, in addition to the music, a wonderful story about mothers and daughters.

S: In fact, I'm working on a documentary right now—filming it for the past three years since mommy died—about my journey since she passed. It's going to culminate with the upcoming performance at Town Hall. The producer, Betsy Schechter's goal is to take this to Sundance, because it's not just about me, the daughter, but about the whole relationship between mothers and daughters. It's a universal story.

AAJ: We look forward to seeing it. Family connections are meaningful to all of us. By the way, are there websites where we can learn more about your relationship to your mother, and so on?

S: There are a couple of them. We have initiated the Nina Simone Foundation, which I started shortly after her death. When mommy died, she was at her home in France, and many people were calling from around the world asking where to send flowers and cards. So I started the Foundation on my way to the airport for the funeral, so that people could send cards and flowers. The Foundation was born out of that, and I'm still kind of reeling at the implications. I look forward to really advancing a larger purpose for it.

My own website is www.simonesuperstar.com. Please let people know that these websites are works in progress.

AAJ: It was a great interview. I forgot for a while that I was doing a formal question/answer session. It became more like a warm conversation. So, this is a good time to conclude our sharing. It's been a pleasure to talk with you today.

S: Thank you, Vic.


Photo Credits:
Top Photo of Nina Simone: uncredited
All other photos courtesy of Simone

Visit Simone on the web.



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