"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.

S: I met the actor James Cromwell around, I dare say, 1997. We were both receiving an award in DC. I was in the show Rent there, and he walked over to me and said that he was a huge fan of my mother's and remembered seeing her at the Village Gate. He actually used to be a carpenter there, believe it or not. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

The Relationship Between Mother and Daughter

AAJ: Now, what was your relationship to Nina growing up? You're her daughter, but I read something that said "She married Andy Stroud in 1960, a former police detective who became her recording agent. They had a daughter, Lisa Celeste in 1961—that's you.

S: Actually it was 1962. Somebody messed that up!

AAJ: It goes on to say, "This daughter, separated from her mother for long periods in her childhood, eventually launched her own career with the stage name of simply 'Simone'. So that's you. The implication is that you often were not with her.

S: First of all, what most people tend to forget is that everything that's out there regarding my mother's personal life is from my mother's point of view. When you hear others' perceptions, then the picture becomes a little more complete. When my parents got divorced in the early 1970s, life kind of exploded. At that time, people weren't paying attention to the effects of divorce on the children. When they divorced, my mother had to deal with many aspects of her career that she wasn't much involved in prior to that, such as the business end of things. As a result, trying to be a single mom was really not an option, so I ended up staying with various family members in North Carolina, in particular, my aunt Lucille, who was my mother's eldest sister. And then I also stayed with another family there.

Nine Simone and Daughter

Then I went to school in Switzerland, and in Liberia, and in Barbados. In the meantime, mom was trying to make sure that her career did well. And you can't do that and have a school age child traveling with you, if you want her to be educated properly. One year, when I was 11, she did take me out of school to travel with her. I went to Japan with her, but it ended up being such a hardship on both of us, that I told her I'd rather stay with grandma in North Carolina.

When I became a teen-ager, and let's face it, all parents have problems with their adolescents—it wasn't any different for us, except that my mother was in the public eye because of who she is, but the dynamics of our relationship were pretty normal. We just happened to be on different continents.

AAJ: How could it be normal if you were so far apart geographically?

S: I was still a rebellious teen-ager. Maybe I should take back the word normal—what is normal? But in terms of the dynamics that parents and children go through throughout the different stages of development, it was the same.

AAJ: You had a strong bond with her, even though you were far apart?

S: Of course!

AAJ: Well, we know that bonds can be disrupted by separation...

S: To me, the umbilical chord is much stronger than logic.

AAJ: So, unlike some other kids with a show business parent, you had a strong bond with your mom.

S: Oh, most definitely. 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. We bump heads many times. She raised a strong, spirited daughter, so what would you expect of Nina Simone's kid? Sometimes when she'd complain about me, my husband would say, "Mom, that's your daughter! And she'd say, "Damn, you're right! (laughter.) So, now that she is no longer here, I've had to deal with many different facets of my childhood. I've had to open the book I've kept buried in my heart about a lot of issues. And to forgive, on many levels. And know that, no matter what was going on, she was doing the very best that she could.

AAJ: So you really love your mother.

S: I really, really love my mom. And it's interesting to hear people's comments and assumptions based on two or three sentences they may have heard or read when my mom may have been having a bad day, or we had an argument. That does not sum up our relationship. class="f-right"> Return to Index...

Nina Simone: The Person, The Singer, The Civil Rights Advocate

AAJ: From what I can gather, your mother was a very forthright person. She generated a variety of mixed feelings in others. She was very controversial.

S: Remember, it wasn't like she turned that part of her off when she got out of the spotlight. Those of us who were part of her personal life had to deal with that at home. It wasn't easy.

AAJ: What was it in her nature—and I'm not saying this to be judgmental—she was a very strong person and impressed people one way or the other very intensely. She wasn't someone you'd see and then forget. But there was something difficult about her as a person, at least according to some of these anecdotes and stories. You grew up knowing her well, so what is your sense of her personality and who she was inside that made her such a forceful individual?

S: I feel that we need to go back where she was raised and the times in which she was raised. She was a child prodigy, a chocolate brown little girl in the South in the '30s, '40s, and '50s, living on the other side of the railroad tracks. I think that has a lot to do with it. Watching what her own mother had to go through. Nina being told that she was ugly, her lips were too big, her skin was too dark, her nose was too wide. Why do you think she embraced the Civil Rights movement as much as she did? So I think there was a lot of anger, a lot of torment, a lot of insecurity. I think she carried that with her into her later years. I think there were a lot of unresolved issues. All this on top of the fact that she was a true genius. Most geniuses I've read about had some serious human relations issues.

AAJ: Miles Davis was certainly a good example of a genius who had difficulty relating to people.

S: Edgar Allen Poe. Beethoven. They all had some personality difficulty that made it hard for them to relate to the rest of us who don't exactly equal them in their genius.

AAJ: Just hearing and being reminded of what she went through in the South, that's so traumatic. It helps me understand. You know, people would say Nina Simone is difficult to work with, to get along with...

S: Oh, I hear so many stories...

AAJ: But growing up African American in the South back then, you had to be tough in order to survive.

S: That's right. Do you go into a corner and stay in a fetal position, or do you stand up and fight for yourself? But, sadly, there came a time for mommy when the lines between knowing when you have to fight and when you don't became blurred. She felt everybody just wanted to get something from her, so that she lost touch with her ability to be herself and trust others. But I feel she surrounded herself with some people who wanted to manipulate and use her. But, for me, I've had a lot of time to think about it, so I don't take certain things so personally that happened to me over the years. With mom, I have to ask myself, what would I have done, how would I have reacted in the situations she encountered?

AAJ: I think it's significant and powerful that we don't remember Nina Simone just as a great singer. She represents a significant part of and contributor to African American history.

S: Definitely.

AAJ: So I wonder if you could say something about what she accomplished to earn that status as a major part of the history of this country.

S: I was there when she wrote the song, "To be Young, Gifted, and Black. I was 11 years old, and I remember her looking at me and saying, "You need to know where you come from and who you are. She hoped the song would become the Black national anthem.

AAJ: Are you going to sing that at Town Hall?

S: I hadn't planned on it. You know, this isn't going to be the only time I'm going to be doing something like this, and you need to keep it simple, because it's so easy to go far beyond what that original Town Hall concert was about. So I have to reign myself in and realize there will be many other opportunities to perform other aspects of her music.

But to get back to her historical significance, mommy was one of the major players in the Civil Rights Movement. When the four little girls were blown up in the church in Alabama, I believe that a part of her just exploded, too. I mean, this concert that we are going to be doing, it brings back the Nina that wasn't angry yet. She's crooning about being loved, and being left, and all the nice fluffy stuff. It wouldn't be until 8 or 9 years later when those girls were blown up, and she became angry, and I think that sent her down a path that she never deviated from in terms of her approach to the stage and her methods.

AAJ: And what was that path?

S: I think she realized what her destiny was in terms of using the stage to say what needed to be said. She told me that when those girls were killed, her voice broke, she was so angry. When she recorded "Mississippi God Damn her voice went down half an octave! The rest is history for her—from "Old Jim Crow, to "Mr. Backlash, to "I Wish I Knew How It Feels to be Free, to "Turning Point, "To be Young, Gifted and Black, and other songs. Her mission became one of telling people what was really going on, and not being afraid to do that, and looking at you while she's playing piano, as if she were singing to each person in the audience.

When Black History Month comes up each year, and mom isn't included enough, it just makes me more committed to making sure that her memory will remain with us like that of the Beatles or Elvis Presley. Thus, I've been in probate the last two and a half years fighting the good fight to preserve her legacy. Now that's done, and I'm administrator and trustee of her estate.

AAJ: So you're going to go ahead and keep her in the public eye and further her legacy.

S: Most definitely. I feel like a giant who's just awakened from a long, deep sleep.

AAJ: You sound like your mother! (laughter.)

S: Thank you!

AAJ: Who were some of the people your mother was associated with in the Civil Rights Movement?

S: Stokely Carmichael, Langston Hughes.

AAJ: She knew the great poet Langston Hughes?

S: He was a good friend of my mom.

AAJ: Did she ever live in Harlem?

S: No. I was born in 1962, and at that time, we were living in Mt. Vernon, NY. She was good friends with Baba Olatunji, Lorraine Hansberry, Hazel Scott, Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte.

AAJ: I too grew up with that generation and that music.

S: And Dr. Betty Shabazz and Malcolm X—I was always at their home when I was a kid.

AAJ: It's good to recall and think of those remarkable people and their revolutionary courage.

S: You know, times have changed a lot since then.

AAJ: Those were times when performers had a sense of mission and purpose. I went to some incredible concerts at Carnegie Hall, with the Weavers, Belafonte, Pete Seeger, and so on. They weren't just singing, they were making a strong statement about human freedom and dignity.

S: You know, I have a little girl of my own, and we'll sit up and listen to her grandmother Nina, and in one of the recorded interviews, she says that she felt she needed to compel Black people to find out where they come from and who they are.

AAJ: Now they have African American history courses—it's hard to remember how very much of an innovation those classes were at the time.

S: And African American History Month. I'm black 365 days a year, but I always feel black-er in February!

AAJ: At one time African Americans were barely mentioned in history courses.

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