Learn How

We need your help in 2018

Support All About Jazz All About Jazz is looking for 1,000 backers to help fund our 2018 projects that directly support jazz. You can make this happen by purchasing ad space or by making a donation to our fund drive. In addition to completing every project (listed here), we'll also hide all Google ads and present exclusive content for a full year!


Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone

Larry Reni Thomas By

Sign in to view read count
Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
Nadine Cohodas
Hardback; 464 pages
ISBN: 10-0375424016

Nadine Cohodas' Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone is a desperately sad but riveting tale about the troubled life and career of this uniquely talented vocalist, pianist, songwriter and activist, born in North Carolina in 1933. It is not the first Simone biography. There are four others, including one written by her former husband and manager, Andy Stroud, as well as an autobiography. Cohodas' book is different because it presents the author as a spectator giving a fly-on-the-wall account of Simone's life. Most of the action is, therefore, "imagined" and so the book inevitably leaves the reader questioning how Cohodas could meaningfully present such detailed and specific information, without actually having been in the same room as Simone all along.

Cohodas claims she tapped into "newly unearthed material, including stories of family and career." She has even corrected some of Simone's own recollections, as given in her autobiography, stating that Simone's memory lapses were early signs of mental illness. This may be true, but, after reading what is undoubtedly a well researched and clearly written narrative, a picture emerges not of someone who was insane, but who was instead a wise entertainer; one who believed that she had been robbed and used throughout her life, became quite bitter about it, and fought back the only way she knew how—by pretending to be a little different.

Cohodas blames the beginning of Simone's erratic behavior on her rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music, a prestigious school in Philadelphia that she applied to attend shortly after she finished high school. Simone herself once said that the rejection was one of the reasons she became a person whose music had an "edge" to it and why her music was for "oppressed third world blacks." But that still doesn't explain why she was such a vocal and consistent activist, risking her career to join the civil rights movement in the 1960s; most people in her position were then afraid to participate in such action. There had to be more to it than the Curtis Institute. What about the hundreds, maybe thousands of young black women and men from poor, working class families who were also rejected from Curtis? Why didn't they become as daring and courageous as Simone? The reader never really gets the answers to those questions. What Cohodas provides instead is a vivid description of the roller coaster ride of a woman who refused to be a working stiff, a semi-slave, in order to help make someone else, rather than herself, wealthy.

The book is, however, a resonant historical journal of the black American experience during the final decades of segregation. It is especially useful for those who are interested in how hard-working blacks dealt with the rigors and restrictions of that demeaning, degrading and insulting era. Simone's parents were people who were employed by well-off whites who helped Nina financially and who encouraged her early in her career. It was these people who convinced her that she could be a concert pianist and that she had a future in European classical music. In fact, according to the book, Nina's early goal was to play European classical music, not jazz. She became a jazz musician after she was denied admission to Curtis, when she started performing to much success at a club in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Shortly afterwards, she changed her name from plain-sounding Eunice Waymon to distinctive, extraordinary, eye-catching Nina Simone. Her life was to change dramatically and for the better. It's hard to imagine Eunice Waymon writing and singing "Mississippi Goddam" or "To Be Young Gifted and Black," or fans lining up to talk to Eunice Waymon about how awful America was and hear how she loved living abroad.

Princess Noire, which includes photographs, an index and a bibliography, leaves the reader wanting even more. It does a tasteful, if sometimes tedious, job of tracing Simone's life from that of a fairly unsophisticated young girl, who started playing gospel music at aged 10 in church in the rural mountains of North Carolina, to her sparkling show business career, her love affairs, her marriages, her time as an expatriate, her struggles with the Internal Revenue Service, other financial ups and downs and, finally, her death in France in 2003. There are very few direct quotes from the subject. That is understandable, because Simone passed before Cohodas began researching the book and she had to rely on secondary sources and interview material taken from previously published sources.


Related Video

comments powered by Disqus

More Articles

Read Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The Politics Of Improvisation Book Reviews Listening For The Secret: The Grateful Dead And The...
by Ian Patterson
Published: December 10, 2017
Read All That's Jazz Book Reviews All That's Jazz
by Phil Barnes
Published: December 6, 2017
Read Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine Book Reviews Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and...
by Doug Collette
Published: November 18, 2017
Read Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend Book Reviews Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend
by David A. Orthmann
Published: November 15, 2017
Read Softly, With Feeling Book Reviews Softly, With Feeling
by Richard J Salvucci
Published: October 24, 2017
Read Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz Book Reviews Good Things Happen Slowly: A Life In And Out Of Jazz
by Mark Corroto
Published: September 13, 2017

Support All About Jazz's Future

We need your help and we have a deal. Contribute $20 and we'll hide the six Google ads that appear on every page for a full year!