Nov 5, 2021, 3:04 PM
Although the history of jazz is mainly dominated by the exploits of male jazz musicians, the role of women in Jazz is just as significant as that of their men counterparts. It is therefore noteworthy to observe that women in jazz have played every instrument in every style and have engaged the same aesthetic and technical developments as their male colleagues. Yet, with the exception of singers and some pianist, women are invariably perceived as a new breed. They are usually marketed as incipient and consumed as curiosities, but despite their aura as being perpetually unprecedented, female jazz musicians do have a history. The early music history of the roots of jazz is rich with the active participation of African American women in spirituals, gospel and blues. Piano music was always considered appropriate and desirable for women, and many female pianist and composers participated in the ragtime craze of the early 1900’s. Although social expectations of what women should and could do impacted their working conditions, reception and opportunities, female jazz musicians have proven their worth repeatedly for over a century. One of the most controversial female jazz musicians is a lady known for her revolutionary stance and her pride of being black.
Her birth name is Eunice Kathleen Waymon; she was born in Tryon, North Carolina, USA on February 21st 1933. Better known by her stage name Nina Simone, she was an American singer, songwriter, pianist arranger and civil rights activist. She started playing the piano at the age of three and aspired very early to become a classical pianist, while working in a broad range of styles including classical, jazz, blues, soul, R&B, gospel and pop. Nina has a distinctive style that is very original and wide- ranging, consisting of a fusion of gospel and pop songs with classical music. She was very much influenced by the classical composer Bach and injected as much of her classical background into her music to give it more depth and quality. She always felt that pop music was inferior to the classics and was very particular with her choice of material for work during her career.
Nina played her first concert when she was twelve. This performance was a classical recital where she played the piano to a mixed audience. She later claimed that during that performance, her parents who had taken seats in the front row were forced to move to the back of the hall to make room for white people. Nina then refused to play until her parents were returned to the front. This incident announced the beginning of her involvement in the civil rights movement. After finishing high school, Nina tried to enroll at the Curtis Institute of music, but was rejected because of her being black. She then moved to the Julliard School of Musicin New York where she would further her studies and concentration on classical music techniques.
It was not easy attending this private institution because she did not have a scholarship, so, in order to fund her studies, she performed weekly at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She played the piano and sang at this club and many other small clubs in the area, and in 1954, she adopted the stage name – Nina Simone. During this period in 1958, she recorded a single rendition of George Gershwin’s “I love You Porgy” which had already been recorded by Billie Holiday who was one of her favorite singers. This recording became a success and a billboard top 40 hit and was soon followed by her debut album on Bethlehem Records – “Little Girl Blue”.
After the success of “Little Girl Blue “, Nina landed a contract with a bigger company, Colpix Records. The success of “Little Girl Blue “with Bethlehem Records was bitter sweet because she was only paid $3000 for the recording session, and was unable to benefit financially from millions in royalties after the same song was re-released in the 1980’s as “My Baby Just Cares For Me”. Her contract with Colpix was different and more empowering, giving Nina complete creative control including the choice of material that would be recorded. A string of studio and live albums would follow, and she performed mainly popular music in order to make money and continue her studies in classical music. She was indifferent to having a recording contract, and maintained this attitude for most of her career.
In 1961, Nina married a New York police detective, Andrew Stroud who later became her manager. The sixties was an era of civil rights politics and America was undergoing a radical transformation. In 1964, she changed record companies from the American, Colpix to the Dutch, Phillips. This gave her a little more freedom and brought a change in the contents of her recordings. Nina had always included songs that drew upon her African American origins in her repertoire, and songs such as “Brown Baby” and “Zungo” were featured on her album “Nina at the Village Gate”. However, on her debut album with Phillips, she for the first time addressed the racial inequality in the U.S.A. with the song “Mississippi Goddam”. This was her response to the murder of civil rights activist Medger Evers and the bombing of a black church in Birmingham, Alabama. The record was released as a single but also boycotted in certain southern states. Civil rights messages became standard in her recordings and live performances and she spoke at many civil rights meetings such as the Selma to Montgomery march demanding equal rights for African Americans.
Nina was a strong admirer of Billie Holiday and featured Holiday’s song “Strange Fruits” on the cover of her album ”Pastel Blues” released in 1965. The song “Strange Fruits” is about the lynching of black men in the southern part of the United States, and was from a poem by W. Cuney. Nina would change record companies again, and in 1967, she signed with RCA Victor Records. Her first album with RCA released in the same year under the title “Nina Sings the Blues” featured a song written by her friend Langston Hughes, the playwright and author. The song was called “Backlash Blues” and on another album “Silk and Soul” released during the same period; she would record some of Billy Taylor’s music. In 1968, she recorded the album “Nuff Said” which contained live recordings made three days after the murder of Martin Luther King. The whole performance was dedicated to King in a song entitled “Why (The King of Love is Dead)”which was written by Gene Taylor, Nina’s bass player.
In 1970, Nina worked with producer Weldon Irwine and made Lorraine Hansberry’s unfinished play into a civil rights song. The song entitled “To Be Young Gifted and Black” was performed live and recorded on her album- ‘Black Gold’. A studio recording was later released as a single and renditions of the song have been recorded by Aretha Franklin and the late Danny Harthaway. A few months after the release of the ‘Black Gold’, Nina left the U.S.A. and moved to the Caribbean Island of Barbados. She went to Barbados alone, leaving her husband and manager behind. There was lack of proper communication or miscommunication between the two, and this, coupled with the fact that Nina left her wedding ring behind, convinced her husband who was also her manager that she wanted a divorce. This incident was very crucial in Nina’s career because her financial records were not given the needed attention, and when she eventually returned to the US, she learnt that there was a warrant for her arrest for unpaid taxes. She was forced to return back to Barbados where she stayed for a few years until her friend and fellow musician- Miriam Makeba convinced her to move to Liberia. Nina stayed in Liberia for a brief period and later moved to Switzerland and the Netherlands, before finally settling in France in 1992.
Nina recorded her last album – “A Single Woman” in 1993 while living in Southern France. She bought a house in Carry-Le- Rouet near Aix-en-Provence and stayed there until her death in 2003. Her funeral service was attended by Miriam Makeba, Patti Labelle, Poet Sonia Sanchez and actor Ossie Davis. She was cremated according to her wish, and her ashes scattered in several African countries.
Nina Simone lived and died as a proud black woman.
This article is in recognition of Lassana Tunkara of the QGroup family who served as a onetime assistant to Nina Simone.