It is fitting that after a month dedicated to Jazz Appreciation, we come to the work of Nina Simone
. Arguably one of the most talented jazz artists, Nina garners high praise across many demographics.
What made her such an influential musician and vocalist? Her voice was deep with a richness and emotive intensity that made her singing unforgettable. She played and sang with an intensity that was and is unmatched. There was an explosiveness of emotion that was held just under the surface of every performance; pure, honest, and unapologetic. It created undeniably moving music, both in her original works and in her interpretation of other musicians' works. Nina was uniquely talented and lived life on her own terms.
Born in North Carolina in 1933 as Eunice Waymon, Nina discovered her love of piano early on. She was a natural talent from the age of 3, when she first climbed up to play a song during one of her mother's sermons. Her mother then allowed her to begin taking lessons. Through the support of her instructor and the local community, she continued on to study classical piano at Juilliard until her funding ran out. She moved to Philadelphia with the intention of studying at the Curtis Institute of Music, but after an unsuccessful application she began taking gigs as a jazz pianist and singer to pay the bills. It was then that she took the name Nina Simone because she didn't want her family to know that she was playing those types of gigs. It was a source of disappointment throughout her life that she did not become the first black concert pianist, as she had hoped. However, Nina did continue to honor her love of classical piano by weaving it into her jazz music. Her 1957 album Little Girl Blue
is a treasure trove of those well-crafted adaptations. Whether she was weaving in classical references from Bach
or traditional hymns like "Good King Wenceslas," her mastery of the piano shined on this album. Some of the highlights are: "Love Me or Leave Me," "Little Girl Blue," and "Mood Indigo"
Nina was unique in vocal quality and lyrical interpretation. The deepness of her voice was distinctive, as was her carefully placed vibrato. She was very skilled at improvisation and creating a rhythmic flow that built emotion from a simmer to a boil slowly over the course of a song. She would build and release tension to create the maximum emotional impact. Her skill as an instrumentalist bolstered this quality in her vocal performances. Some of her work that highlights her vocals and melody interpretation are: "He Needs Me," "Lilac Wine," and "I Think It's Going To Rain Today."
During the civil rights movement of the 1960's, music increasingly became an outlet for Nina's strong emotions and during that time she explored civil rights activism through songwriting. Her inspiration led her to write such works as "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," "Four Women," and perhaps her most well known protest masterpiece "Mississippi Goddam." She spoke often of the desire to feel free, and how the race relations in the US didn't allow for that. She was passionate activist, working closely with Martin Luther King Jr. up until his assassination in 1968. She performed a song written by her bassist called "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)" following his death, and in it she conveys a softness and a deep conviction in his message. The violence culminating in the MLK assassination led to her resignation that their dream for equality in the US was not going to be realized, which subsequently led to her living abroad for many years. She settled in France, where she lived for the rest of her life.
Her career in the 1970's was tumultuous, both commercially and financially. Despite her difficulties during this time, she released the album Baltimore
to a warm reception from fans. The title track was a brilliant, reggae style adaptation of Randy Newman
's 1977 tune.
In the 1980's, her song "My Baby Just Cares For Me" was used in a perfume ad, giving her career new life. She released her album Fodder On My Wings
in 1982, which featured songs exploring her emotional journey both from her time in the US and from her traveling such as "I Sing Just To Know That I'm Alive" and "Fodder In Her Wings."
She released one more album during her career, 1993's A Single Woman
. This album was more centered around popular music stylings, which didn't allow for Nina's abilities to be fully realized, but a particularly good track was "Just Say I Love Him." Reminiscent of her past work, the song is haunting and full of depth. Although she did not release any more studio albums, Nina continued to tour successfully and maintain a dedicated fan base until her death in 2003 at the age of 70.
Nina Simone is continually celebrated as one of jazz's greatest performers. She was a classically trained pianist, an innovative and unique vocalist, and a passionate songwriter. Her legacy was one of strength, honesty, and tenacity.