The year 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of an article series I wrote called 5 Notable Women of the Past and Present and which was first published by AXS Entertainment. Included in the series were profiles of: musician and actress Abbey Lincoln, comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley, author Octavia Butler, social justice advocate Dr. Abigail Jordan, and Ms. Simone. It is an honor to recognize Ms. Simone’s brilliant legacy and extraordinary life at this time with two new works of art––titled Ode to the Genius and Good Intentions of Nina Simone Numbers 1 and 2–– and republication my article about her ongoing influence on contemporary musical artists. That influence remains as true now as a decade ago. Lessons from Nina Simone on Love, Music, and Commitment part 1 starts now:
Getting to Know Ms. Simone
Many modern audiences first became familiar with the name Nina Simone in 2005 after Canadian singer Michael Buble’ recorded her 1965 hit song, “Feeling Good,” and which finalists on the popular American Idol television show sang before world audiences in 2007.
However, long before Buble’ or American Idol finalists sang “Feeling Good,” Nina Simone made a lasting name for herself on several continents as one of the great singers, composers, and performers of the twentieth century. The fact that at least a dozen books document her life and work illustrate just how great she was and how enduring her music remains. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas, is one of the latest such titles just published in February 2010.
The singer herself published in 1991 (the first London edition) an autobiography titled I Put a Spell on You. Describing just how Simone went about working her musical magic, author and former Ebony Magazine music editor Phyl Garland wrote in her in her own book, The Sound of Soul, The Music and Its Meaning, that:
“She casts her spell with the fluid but frequently complex patterns of notes she etches on her piano and with the distinctive sound of her richly reedy voice.”
Another way to gauge the impact of Simone’s life and legacy is to look at it like this: whereas the great Aretha Franklin earned, and has worn with dignity, the title “Queen of Soul” for at least four decades, Nina Simone earned and wore for decades the title “High Priestess of Soul.”
North Carolina Beginnings
She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. Both her parents, John Divine Waymon and Mary Kate Waymon, were entertainers when they met but later settled into more stable professions to raise their eight children. Her mother became a devoted Methodist minister, which later prompted Eunice Waymon to adopt the name Nina Simone when she began performing in night clubs and bars.
Simone’s talents as a pianist were recognized early and her family supported her goal to become a world-class concert pianist. She was good enough to study for a time at the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York but her application to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected. This rejection, she felt, was based more on her race than her abilities and it has often been cited as a major source of the political fury that characterized some of her music. The planned career in classical music took off instead in the direction of more popular genres. Recording her first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1957, she enjoyed a hit with the George Gershwin song, “I Loves You Porgy.”
While she was quickly labeled and marketed as a jazz performer, Simone had actually developed into a mistress of diverse musical forms that included not only jazz, but gospel, blues, Broadway show tunes, Black folk songs, and other styles in classic American modes. She could have easily carved out a successful career for herself in popular music and simply enjoyed the wealth and fame that comes with such success. But in addition to her musical sensibilities, she also possessed a social/political consciousness that was magnified by friendships with individuals like the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author James Baldwin, and author Langston Hughes, all of whom at various times lent their artistry to the struggle for racial equality.
It was Hughes who said, “Nina Simone is as different from other singers as beer is from champagne.” While he contributed liner notes to at least one of her albums, she in turn wrote with him the hit song “Backlash Blues.”
Commitment and Consequences
The singer once stated that as far as she was concerned, the job of a creative artist was to address the pressing issues of her times. Towards that end, she wrote and recorded a number of songs that addressed individual moral responsibility as well as the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s. Following two events in particular––the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Mississippi and that of four Black girls in a Birmingham church–– she recorded the now classic “Mississippi Goddamn.”
The composition is in part satire, part social criticism, and part political outrage, which, given the real-world apartheid conditions and context of the times, makes a great deal of sense. She introduced the song by emphasizing its title and pointing out that she meant every word of it, then sang with fierce courage and intelligence: “Alabama's gotten me so upset/ Tennessee made me lose my rest/ And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam…”
Aside from expressing outrage, the singer also implored:
“Can't you see it
While many championed Simone for her courageous outspokenness at a time when passive endurance was considered the key to civil rights success for African Americans, others vilified her for it. Many radio stations banned the song and the impact upon her career would prove a lasting negative one. Other powerful protest songs, notably music legends Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” were also released during this period but apparently considered less confrontational or threatening than “Mississippi Goddamn.”
NEXT: Lessons from Nina Simone on Love, Music, and Commitment part 2
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance Centennial 1919-2029
The first time I became aware of the name Al Jarreau was when receiving a letter (of the old-school variety penned by hand) from a former college roommate exclaiming how thrilled he and his girlfriend had been to attend one of his concerts. Despite my former roommate's enthusiasm, which rarely bubbled over so heatedly for anything other than football and slightly-older women, I did not really understand all the fuss over Jarreau.
Then a couple of years later, in the early 1980s, I got to see the rhythm-bending phenomenon myself in Berkeley, California, on a bill that also featured Carlos Santana and Frankie Beverly and Maze. The world by then had come to know him as the Grammy Award-winning talent behind the albums Look to the Rainbow (1977) and All Fly Home (1978). For my part, I finally got to experience the truth of a statement Jarreau would make many years later:
“I have missed the boat over my career by not doing every second or third CD live, because things happen on stage that don't happen in the studio.” (Al Jarreau Biography.com)
By its accommodating democratic nature, live jazz is often a music of improvisation. And by his brilliant fluid aesthetics, Al Jarreau was able to adapt his vocal vibrations to whatever genre he chose. But he was also, in essence a flesh, blood, and soul embodiment of jazz. It would not be absolutely wrong to describe him as a male Ella Fitzgerald or as a contemporary Cab Calloway, both of Harlem Renaissance fame, rolled into one. It might be more accurate, however, to say he was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of talent.
Among the things to which he alluded that could "happen on stage" was for him to suddenly turn his chest and rib cage into a drum set, transform his clapping hands into tambourines, or absorb an inspiration from the improvisational moment and blast it out of his lungs like a laser cannon lighting up multiple Sonny Rollins solos.
What happened on the stage was the kind of inexplicable enchantment that made music journalists rush to describe the "quintessential jazz musician" who could duplicate the superlative performance of a brilliant quartet, or even an entire orchestra, with just his singular voice and body carved from music. Think of him this way--Al Jarreau did not just perform his music: right before your astonished eyes and heart he brought it to kicking, shouting, dancing, holy cosmic life that left you breathless with wonder.
Forced to Make a Difficult Decision
The horrible dilemma with which I had to deal the night I saw Jarreau at the Berkeley Coliseum was that he had already been onstage for an hour, took a very short break, then came back for an additional set that lasted even longer. Dependent as I was on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) subway system to get me back to San Francisco, I could not ignore the fact that it was close to midnight and, according to my schedule, the last train to the city would leave at that time.
Thoroughly immersed in the essential work of channeling raw creative energy into musical genius, the singer himself clearly had no use for clocks or schedules and the band seemed happy to match him song for song. Knowing no one from whom I could beg for a ride if I chose to stay, I forced myself to leave and head for the subway.
Just as I was about to enter the station some blocks away, something incredible caught my attention. It was his voice. Whether due to the unique acoustics of the coliseum or the undiminished intensity of his performance, I could still hear him. It was if the night itself with the surrounding buildings, street lamps, trees, and sweet cool air had become his microphone and speakers. I smiled, then laughed out loud, and then laughed some more while simultaneously trying to sing along with him and hurry down the subway steps.
NEXT: Jarreau Jazz-riff Earth-tunes for the Angel of Compassion: Essay with Poem (part 2)
Bright Skylark Literary Productions
Author-Poet Aberjhani is currently completing a book of nonfiction narratives about race relations, histories of erasure, the cultural arts, and practices of slavery in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia, USA.
If you missed part 1 of this article you can check it out here: Reflecting on the Year 2016 & stepping not-too-boldly into 2017 part 1. Part 2 begins now:
Increasing tensions between law enforcement agencies and African-American communities, the twin scourges of terrorism and war, and off-the-chain “natural disasters” too often rearranged priorities in 2016 whether we wanted them to or not.
The massacres in Orlando (Florida, USA) on June 12, in Bagdad (Iraq) on July 3, Nice (France) July 14, the shocker in Munich (Germany) on July 22, as well as too many others that followed, provided additional support for the theory that more and more people are becoming as addicted to insanityas millions are to heroine and prescription pain drugs. And all of this in addition to the ongoing slaughter in Syria.
Acknowledging the hurtful issues that drive destructive behavior on different levels is the first important step to resolving them.
Confronting the Unimaginable in Aleppo, Syria
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.