Nina Simone: Recognition of a Signifyin' Songbird


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Critics have longed fawned over her voice and her piano playing, but there was always something more to this outspoken musician.
Nina Simone spent her entire life jumping. Jumping from one continent to another, from the South to the North, from the church to the blues, from jazz to pop. Her incredibly diverse repertoire demonstrates the kind of genre-hopping she undertook during her long and illustrious career. But what's most impressive about Nina Simone's work is not the sheer the number of songs she sang and played on piano (well over 500 tunes at one point) nor is it her distinct, husky voice and classically trained ear. Nina Simone's genius resided in her unique interpretation of songs and her keen ability to signify upon the compositions of others.

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in the small town of Tryon, NC, Nina Simone was raised physically, spiritually, and musically in her parents' church. Her mother, the Reverend Mary Kate Waymon, was minister of Tryon's only African-American Methodist church. Along with her three sisters and four brothers, she began serving in the church at an early age, and by first grade, she was performing as an accompanist in her mother's choir (alongside her father, John Divine Waymon, on guitar). Members of the congregation soon caught on to the talent that Simone possessed, and in 1939, a local benefactor began paying for professional piano lessons for the young girl.

At her first piano recital at the Lanier Library in Tryon, NC, an unfortunate incident occurred which would scar Nina Simone for the rest of her life. As she described in numerous interviews, her parents were asked to give up their front-row seats at the recital, as a white couple had requested those chairs. Although there are conflicting reports on what occurred next, legend has it that the 10-year old refused to perform until her parents were returned to their original seats.

Regrettably, the segregated public schools in Tryon could not offer Simone an exemplary education, so her parents sent her to the Allen High School for Girls in Asheville. She graduated in 1950, as Valedictorian of her class, and shortly thereafter, received a one-year scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York. Her hopes were almost dashed when, upon being accepted, she and her parents realized that the expenses were beyond their means. Thankfully, for a second time in her life, the young musician was supported by a group of local benefactors, who came together and raised the additional funds she needed to remain at Juilliard.

Studying classical piano by day and working as a vocal teacher¹s accompanist by night, Simone completed her studies at Juilliard and moved to Philadelphia to join her recently relocated parents. She was hoping to study music further at the predominantly white Curtis Institute of Philadelphia, but was not admitted (according to her autobiography, I Put a Spell On You ) because of her skin color. It was around this time that she adopted the moniker "Nina Simone," upon the recommendation of her boyfriend. By 1956 the young lady was playing nightclubs in Atlantic City regularly; New York City, on occasion.

Through the encouragement of a club owner, she met Sid Nathan, the owner of the jazz label Bethlehem Records. In 1957, Nathan invited the determined musician to his New York studio, and over a period of 14 hours, she cut her first record. Of the 14 songs recorded in the session, the Gershwin number "I Loves You Porgy" would go on to become one of her most important recordings. Already evident in that recording, and on other songs from her first session, was Simone's innovative phrasing and signifying. Signifying is primarily an African-American rhetorical device that repeats an earlier idea, riff, or scene with a signal difference. In the simplest terms, signifying is appropriating another's work and enhancing the original piece by adding another level of meaning to it. Historically, jazz musicians have been very hip to signifying. Because jazz is a musical tradition that relies so heavily on standards (compositions by the likes of Armstrong, Ellington, Hart-Rogers, and Vernon Duke, among others), the greatest musicians are those who bring a keen intellect and an almost trickster mentality to the music. They are able to go beyond the mere 'cover version' of a song and signify upon that work, indirectly critiquing the original composition and/or composer.

Simone's version of the Donaldson-Kahn composition, "Love Me or Leave Me" (from the same session) further demonstrates her wit and inventiveness; the tune swings along with each verse, with accompanying bass and drums, until it reaches Simone's solo. At this point in the recording, she pulls away from the rhythm section and launches into one of Bach's fugues, signifying upon the simplicity of the original composition and the fact that she can hold her own equally in both jazz and classical realms.

The first Bethlehem release was a success, prompting her to go on and record another two LPs for the label. Marrying a New York detective in 1961, giving birth to a daughter in 1962, and recording another twenty-two records for the Phillips and RCA labels between the years of 1962 and 1970, Nina Simone led an incredibly active life during the 1960s. Some of her most provocative songs were written during this time, including protest songs like her original "Mississippi Goddamn" and "Four Women." All of her records feature both original songs and incredible renditions of songs by other composers, including tunes by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Sandy Denny, and the Bee Gees (in addition to the countless jazz standards she performed). Albums like To Love Somebody and Black Gold include songs like Screamin Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You," which was never before sung with such sexual undertones, and the often covered "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." The latter song was quite appropriate for a woman who was not easily defined.

Not all of her recordings met critical success. When Nina Simone recorded Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released" in 1967, many critics panned the recording, finding her pop-style orchestration, consisting of electric guitar, strings and electric bass, to be tepid and mainstream. What most critics failed to see was the beauty in Simone's interpretation and the new meaning it took on when sung by her: "I Shall Be Released" has an entirely different meaning when it is considered in the context of the struggles Simone suffered in her own life and the struggles of African-Americans in general. Never would she allow critics (or anyone else for that matter) to dictate the direction of her musical progress.

Frustrated with racism and discrimination in America, Simone became an expatriate in 1969, moving to Barbados, Trindad, Liberia, Switzerland, Belgium, and finally settling in France. Her marriage ended in 1970 and she devoted much of her time over the next decade to touring and recording. In 1978, upon returning to the US for a tour, she was arrested for withholding taxes during the years of 1971 to 1973. Pleading that her actions were in protest of Vietnam conflict, she was eventually released. During the 1980s, she made infrequent visits to the US, instead spending much of her time performing in Europe and staying at her home in France. In July of 1995, she ran into trouble with the law again; this time for firing a scatter-gun at a group of rambunctious kids outside of her home, in the Provencal town of Bouc-Bel-Air. After paying the medical bills of one boy who was shot in the leg and a $4,600 fine, she was released. Her daughter, Lisa Celeste Stroud (now vocalist for Liquid Soul), remained very close to her mother during this period, appearing frequently with her on stage. On her last trip to the US in 2001, it was apparent that the once boisterous and hardy Nina Simone was ailing. She died on April 21, 2003, at the age of 70, in her home in France.

Nina Simone's contributions to music are innumerable. Critics have longed fawned over her voice and her piano playing, but there was always something more to this outspoken musician. She refused to be labeled, choosing instead to subvert the expectations of her audience and of critics through her broad exploration of the fields of rock, folk, country, blues, and jazz. She once said, "It's always been my aim to stay outside any category. That's my freedom." Her freedom, her wit, and her ability to signify, even more than her lovely voice and virtuosity on the piano, may never be matched.

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