By Crystal Alyse.
“Jazz is not just music, it’s a way of life, it’s a way of being, a way of thinking. . . . the new inventive phrases we make up to describe things — all that to me is jazz just as much as the music we play”- Nina Simone.
To watch her is to love her, to listen is to know. Nina Simone cannot be merely categorized as a singer, but an ethereal empress, a goddess in her own rite. Her originality and boundless venture to defy genres, illuminates her as an essential American musician. She was folk, soul, rhythm, blues, bop, jazz, country, gospel, classical, and tradition.
Nina Simone, 1969. Getty-images.
Her fluency in the King’s English, the Queen’s French, and the poor man’s vernacular made her accessible to any audience. It was her humanity that made her brilliant. She mirrored queens of the past with her presence, aura and talent that captivated audiences in Europe, Canada, and around the world.
Her voice conveyed the revelations of human emotion; each time she opened her mouth, she captured the essence of everyday human experience. She defined what true artistry is: skill as a pianist, vocalist and a massive stage presence,her consciousness as a figure of social transformation.
A voice unprecedented, both nasal and direct, was the medium for her guttural messages. Her voice, so soft, sharp, and distinctive that it startles one to attention. It captures the ears. Her vocal breaks are full of timber; the ‘sing-song’, bird-like rifts flutter as she sings. Her ad-libs are full of soul and awareness. She was intentional,and very, rooted in her beliefs.
“Mother and Child”
She was bold, with an undeniable presence, her message spell binding, and her deep, glowing skin, profound. She represented the natural, traditional aesthetic, and even posed nude in a point blank angle to show her lack of fear: she was woman and proud of her heritage.
Nina Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, and later dubbed the High priestess of Soul, became a singer, arranger, classically trained pianist, songwriter, and activist. She was born in 1933, and from the start of her life, her musical talent was obvious. Simone became enthralled with classical composers, admiring while mastering the likes of Bach, Chopin, and Beethoven. When she came of age, she applied to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Nina held the position that her race was a factor when the institute denied her access.
“Once I understood Bach’s music, I wanted to be a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music, and it was that teacher who introduced me to his world.”
“When I was studying… there weren’t any black concert pianists. My choices were intuitive, and I had the technique to do it. People have heard my music and heard the classic in it, so I have become known as a black classical pianist.”
In 1954, Simone began a night gig in Philadelphia; Simone became hailed as a hit act in her renditions of popular and classic music hits. In 1957 Nina was at the forefront of talent scouts among the music industry. Through a series of record deals (mostly bad,) she arose as a rhythm and blues singer. Over the next decade her music and her personal perspectives on race and social strife would change dynamically.
“How do you explain what it feels like to get on the stage and make poetry that you know sinks into the hearts and souls of people who are unable to express it?”
Her music morphed into political prose: “Mississippi Goddamn” dedicated to Civil Rights martyr Medgar Evers; “Four Women” dedicated to the toil of women of color in America; “Young, Gifted, and Black” dedicated to the great Lorraine Hansberry. She became a mouthpiece for radical change. Her oft times international performances reigned as statements of freedom from inhibition and social restriction. She was who she was: ”unapologetically black”. And despite vast individual burdens, Nina Simone remained an example of raw soul and piercing eccentricity.
Toward the end of her life, her uncompromising tendencies appeared on the verge of fanaticism. Several events brought her mental health into question and she essential stopped making music by 1974. Between the time where her disgruntled opinions about the industry caused her exit and her death in 2003 after a battle with breast cancer, Simone remained an image of social and musical royalty.
“There’s no excuse for the young people not knowing who the heroes and heroines are or were.”
Simone holds possibly the only remnants of an aged queen in the American soul collective consciousness. Her antics never made her artistry less spellbinding. To hail her music is to acclaim her depth of musical knowledge and that esoteric substance that flowed through her veins. That made her play music riddled with rhythm and love; classical chords and social consciousness. That made her unlike this earth, Nina Simone, we hail thee.
“I’m a real rebel with a cause”- Nina Simone.
Crystal Alyse is a contributing writer for by such and such.
Special thank you to Cassia Lupo for the “Nina Simone” Painting.