NINA SIMONE, DIVA OUT OF CAROLINA
By ROBIN D. G. KELLEY
Published: February 25, 2010
Regular readers might remember a couple of pieces I posted here re. Nina last year, here’s another, it’s a review of a biography just published which echos some of the comments from last year’s pieces. Our UK Spillers might have missed it since it’s from the NY Times. The author is Robin Kelley, a good friend of my wife who’s recent book on Monk has received rave reviews.
The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
By Nadine Cohodas
Illustrated. 449 pp. Pantheon Books. $30
Excerpt: ‘Princess Noire’ (February 19, 2010)
Dwight Garner’s Review of ‘Princess Noire’ (February 19, 2010)
If you want to read the exerpt and Dwight Garner’s review go to:
“I will never be your clown,” Nina Simone shouted at a restless nightclub audience in Cannes in 1977. The mostly French-speaking crowd was either unable or unwilling to join her in a singalong, and she took it as a personal affront. “God gave me this gift — and I am a genius. I worked at my craft for six to 14 hours a day, I studied and learned through practice. I am not here just to entertain you. But how can I be alive when you are so dead?” Her speech only prompted more requests for her to “SING!” She managed to get through some songs before delivering her parting words. “You owe me,” she railed. “I don’t wear a painted smile on my face, like Louis Armstrong.
Scenes like this were all too common, especially during the latter half of Simone’s career. Her reputation as mercurial, moody and combative was well established, and she did little to dispel this image in her memoir, “I Put a Spell on You.” She was nothing if not paradoxical. She promoted black militancy and spoke of her love for “my people,” but often treated black audiences with contempt and condescension. She beat up white audiences, too, sometimes declaring her disdain for white people, and yet sustained a substantial crossover following with covers of songs associated with their youth culture. She might show up an hour or two late, ramble incoherently onstage and suddenly give a performance that could bring a weary crowd to tears.
But when she called herself a genius — a term usually reserved for male artists — it was not mere hyperbole. Indeed, Nadine Cohodas’s disturbing portrait in “Princess Noire” sets out to confirm Simone’s genius. The author lingers on her stage performances, her musical decisions, her sartorial choices — the alchemy she created in sound and fury. Cohodas, who has written books about Dinah Washington and Chess Records, devotes more space to Simone’s music than any biography to date. But as hard as the author tries, she can’t avoid the fact that Si mone’s fame has more to do with her tempestuous behavior, both on- and offstage.
Before Nina Simone arrived, there was Eunice Waymon, born in Tryon, N.C., in 1933, the sixth of eight children. Her father, J. D. Waymon, was a jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur, and her mother, Kate, was a domestic worker whose primary vocation was preaching the Gospel. Eunice was just a small child when she started playing piano in church. Cohodas paints a complex picture of Tryon and its environs, a community ruled by Jim Crow but with a color line porous enough for the Waymons to live fairly comfortably and for young Eunice to take piano lessons from Muriel Mazzanovich, known affectionately as Miss Mazzy.
Eunice depended on a white patron to pay for her lessons, and she remained fairly sequestered in the quiet, cloistered world of Miss Mazzy’s home, studying Bach and dreaming of a different path. But the walls between Tryon’s polite society and the realities of racial subjugation were thin and vulnerable, occasionally tumbling down — as on the night her parents were asked to move out of the front row during one of her public recitals. Eleven-year-old Eunice threatened to refuse to play if her parents could not remain in their seats. Even then, she under stood her power as an artist.
Eunice continued her music studies at the Allen School, a private high school for black girls in Asheville, probably with the support of white benefactors. Upon graduation, she took classes at Juilliard and worked long hours to prepare for her audition to the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. She was rejected, her dream of becoming a concert pianist crushed. In Simone’s eyes, the school’s rebuff was a racial slight. While Cohodas quotes a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, who suggests Simone simply wasn’t up to the task, she is unwilling to admit that Si mone’s piano skills were less than brilliant. She may have been the greatest prodigy to come out of Tryon’s black community, but in New York City pianists of her caliber were plentiful.
Simone’s genius lay elsewhere, and it seems she discovered it quite by accident when she accepted a solo piano gig at an Atlantic City nightclub for the summer of 1954 and began singing when pressed by her boss. Adopting the name Nina Si mone, she used her deep, husky voice, wide-ranging knowledge of musical genres and eclectic tastes to push her performances to the foreground in clubs where cocktail piano was meant for atmosphere. And as Cohodas observes, Simone replaced the sexuality of a torch singer with the elegance of a concert pianist, evoking respectability and “race pride” along the way. After reaching the pop charts with her 1959 cover of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” she quickly became an international star. She gave audiences more than a concert; she presented an overall cultural experience, different from pop and jazz, so original that she belongs in a category unto herself.
Music made Simone a star; politics made her a force. She joined a small circle of New York-based intellectuals in support of the civil rights movement, speaking out against racism and injustice from her own platform, performing protest songs and writing a few of her own. Her “Mississippi Goddam,” written in the wake of Medgar Evers’s assassination and the murder of four black girls in a church bombing, became a veritable anthem. Although Si mone believed that her politics cost her jobs, by the late ’60s she had embraced her role as songstress of black militancy, composing “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a powerful tribute to the memory of Lorraine Hansberry. Surprisingly, Cohodas devotes little space to understanding the source of Simone’s political views and her engagement with the likes of Hansberry, James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael, or how the larger context of African liberation shaped her own vision.
After establishing Simone’s musical gen ius, international success and political prominence, Cohodas details her long downward spiral. To the author’s credit, she tries valiantly to keep our attention on the stage and Simone’s music, even when it is subpar, and even when Simone’s life becomes a litany of self-destructive acts and bitter disappointments. Yet while Coho das provides vivid descriptions of Simone’s behavior, she offers very little by way of explanation. How shy Eunice Waymon became a demanding diva almost overnight remains a mystery. Not until the last 50 pages do we learn that Simone probably suffered from schizophrenia. But was her anger a manifestation of an undiagnosed chemical imbalance, or did it reflect a life of failed marriages, failed affairs, failed motherhood, dislocations, financial woes, and a history of racial and sexual discrimination? Apparently, Simone also survived domestic violence and rape. (Her bisexuality, as well as the manner in which marriage suppressed it, deserves more than the few sentences it receives.)
During her final two decades (she died in 2003), as her illness progressed, financial considerations compelled Simone to work. She had to make money — for herself and her handlers, whose livelihoods depended on her — and her shows became exhibitions of her deteriorating life and mental health. Cohodas captures a piteous moment when, after a gig at Swing Plaza in New York in 1983, federal agents turned up to confiscate her earnings. But they didn’t touch the cash left out front in a bucket labeled “the Society for the Preser vation of Nina Simone.”
By the end of her “tumultuous reign,” Simone was a shadow of her former self, a woman practically broken by an unscrupulous industry, exploitative men and her own demons. Like her performances, the book’s final chapters are hard to experience but impossible to ignore. And like so many of us who saw Simone onstage when she should have been convalescing or simply enjoying life, readers may feel an urgent need to listen to her old recordings to remind themselves of what they loved about her in the first place.
Robin D. G. Kelley’s most recent book is “Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original.”