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"Simone": Honoring the Legacy of Nina Simone

Victor L. Schermer By

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I had- I have- I have to use the present tense- a very strong bond with my mother. No matter what she said, no matter what went on, or however far apart we were, or how long we were away from each other, that bond between the two of us remains strong, remains passionate.
Nina Simone was one of the finest female vocalists of the twentieth century. Indeed in the opinion of Elton John and others, she was the greatest of them all. In addition, she left her mark not only on music but also on the Civil Rights Movement and the social and political history of our country and the world, championing the cause of African Americans. Outspoken in her views and demanding in her work, she never catered to popular tastes. Instead, she left a legacy of performances and recordings that not only set a standard of musical performance but also of human freedom and dignity.

On April 21st, 2006, her daughter, "Simone, an accomplished singer and creative force in her own right, will perform at Town Hall, New York City (tickets available here), in a concert tribute to her mother's career-catapulting performance there in 1959. Simone, who of course knows her mother and her music intimately, has chosen to devote part of her life to furthering Nina Simone's rich legacy.

Nina Simone has always been one of my personal favorites. And as an American citizen, I appreciate her contribution to the Civil Rights Movement. So, as the Town Hall concert date approaches, I decided to interview her daughter about various aspects of the music and her life with her mother. We had a warm, honest, and at times heart-rending conversation, as follows.

Chapter Index

The Town Hall Concert
The Relationship Between Mother and Daughter
Nina Simone: The Person, The Singer, The Civil Rights Advocate
Was Nina Simone a "Jazz Singer?
About "Simone Herself—As Person, Daughter and Performer

All About Jazz: The usual warm-up question. If you were to go to the proverbial desert island, what recordings would you bring with you?

Simone: Nina Simone's, of course!

AAJ: Any particular one of hers?

S: There are so many favorites. One of my favorite songs is "Suzanne. "Black is the Color (of My True Love's Hair), the duet version that she did with Emil Latimer in the 1970s. "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. And "Pay Him No Mind from the High Priestess of Soul album, as well as "Goin' Back Home, which she sang at my godmother Lorraine Hansberry's funeral.

Then, of course I love C.C. Wynans. I also love Otis Redding. Marvin Gaye. And one more—Kelly Clarkson.

The Town Hall Concert

AAJ: About the upcoming Town Hall concert. My understanding is that on April 21st, 2006 you're going to replicate the concert Nina Simone did in Town Hall in 1959.

S: The exact date of her original show is September 12th. I know that because I was born on September 12th a few years later. And, importantly, we're paying tribute to Nina Simone, we're not trying to replicate the concert literally. We're trying to simply revisit it, but do it our way. There are so many differences. First of all, I don't play piano.

AAJ: Will you do the same songs she did?

S: Yes. But I might not do them exactly the same way. People shouldn't expect me to copy her.

AAJ: You're going to do your own thing as a tribute to her.

S: Yes. I know a lot of her phrasings and nuances, as I've studied the music. If you will, once I get my "formula from mommy's recordings, I put my own flavor on it.

AAJ: When you listen to her recordings, do memories come back?

S: Oh, definitely! I've been listening to her all of my life, but it's different now because she's no longer here, so there are memories and emotions that are evoked when I hear certain songs or listen to some of her recorded interviews.

AAJ: Tell us more about the 1959 concert. What was its particular significance?

S: Well, I hadn't been born at that time, but I am aware that this concert catapulted her into mainstream attention. Al Schackman, who is going to be my musical director, and was mom's musical director for many years, I believe he was with her at that concert in 1959. He'd have some of the details. He was there, as well as Chris White and Bobby Hamilton who will be accompanying me too.

AAJ: So, who were Nina's musicians for that concert? And who will accompany you?

S: I'll have more than she did. Mommy used Al Schackman Bobby Hamilton, and Chris White. I will be using those three gentlemen, and in addition, Bobby Durough on piano and Leopoldo Fleming on percussion. So it'll be piano, bass, guitar, drums, and percussion.

AAJ: It's wonderful to have the same core group working with you.

S: Yes. For so many years, I watched her from the wings, and I was the little girl who sang along, and so to be able to share the stage with these accomplished musicians, and to recreate in our own way a wonderful concert of my mother's is an honor.

AAJ: And you were absorbing her singing from your childhood on.

S: Throughout! From the time I was in her belly, and she made her album "Broadway Blues and Ballads. So I've been soakin' up Nina Simone since before I was born!

AAJ: She didn't play Mozart for you while you were in the womb, then. (laughter)

S: No, she didn't play Mozart for me that I know of! But at the same time she may have, and knowing her, she probably mixed it in with some Beethoven and Bach and Nina Simone and God only knows who else and just made it her own composition!

AAJ: She was a prodigious musician. She studied at Julliard. You know that "Little Girl Blue that she did, with the piano counterpoint, based on "Good King Wenceslas, it was remarkable how that went together.

S: And also, what she did with "Mood Indigo was incredible. When I would sit next to her while she was playing piano, it was like experiencing perfection. There was a piano exercise she did that she incorporated in her concert performances. She used it to warm up her fingers. It was amazing to see the reactions of the audience, because she would turn it into an improvised composition.

AAJ: I heard Nina in person at the Village Gate many years ago. It was unforgettable. I remember how impressed I was by what she did technically on the piano, not to mention the depth of her interpretations and her extraordinary voice.


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