By Eleni P. Austin
Nina Simone aspired to be a Classical pianist. She studied and trained from childhood until her 20s. She was gifted, she was a prodigy, but she was never accepted into that rarified world. Her talent was never in question, but she was marginalized because of the color of her skin. Although she became a celebrated Jazz pianist and vocalist, forever known as The Empress Of Song, the pain of that rejection was never far away.
A native of North Carolina, Eunice Kathleen Waymon was born in 1933. She got her start playing piano in church, soon she was receiving private lessons, and mastering music by Chopin, Schubert, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. She completed her formal training at Julliard in the early ‘50s.
Denied admittance to the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, she began earning a living playing piano at a club in Atlantic City. She knew her devoutly Christian mother would never approve of her playing “the devil’s music,” so, she adopted a stage name. Nina was originally a nickname from an ex-beau. Simone was an homage to the French actress Simone Signoret.
Following her first gig, the club owner insisted she sing, as well as play piano. Incorporating Jazz, Blues, Gospel, Boogie-Woogie and most conspicuously, Classical forms into her playing, she began making a name with herself, performing up and down the East Coast. In 1957, she signed her first record deal. From the outset, she insisted on creative control, and her obstinance paid off, her first single, “I Loves You, Porgy,” landed in the Top 20. Her debut album, Little Girl Blue, arrived in 1958 and a star was born.
Throughout her career, Nina cycled through a series of record labels. Still, by the late ‘80s, she released 43 albums. Wary of the music business, she made her money out on the road and toured relentlessly. By the early ‘60s, she was married with a young daughter. Her husband, Andrew Stroud, was also her manager, while their business relationship stayed solid, their marital bond began to fray. Trapped with a man who was physically and emotionally abusive, she immersed herself in the Civil Rights movement.
Following Medgar Evers murder and the church bombing that killed four young girls in Birmingham, Alabama, Nina responded by writing the scathing cri de couer, “Mississippi Goddam.” She performed and spoke at freedom marches, including Selma and Montgomery.
Nina was close to both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, she was devastated when each of those charismatic leaders were assassinated in 1965 and 1968, respectively. Rather quickly, she began channeling her grief and rage into songs like “Backlash Blues,” “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” She also wrote and recorded “Young, Gifted And Black,” which also became a hit for Aretha Franklin.
Reaching beyond Jazz and Soul, she began re-working songs associated with Rock & Roll artists like The Animals, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, the Bee Gees and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. But by 1970, she began to suspect that her political views and her strong commitment to social justice, had prompted the industry to covertly boycott her music. She fled her marriage, pretty much abandoning her daughter, Lisa in the process. Initially, she disappeared to Barbados before settling in the Republic Of Liberia, located on the West African Coast.
Although her daughter joined her in Africa, Nina became physically abusive and Lisa returned to live with her dad in the States. Much later in life, Nina was diagnosed with a Bi-Polar disorder. Thanks to a sympathetic management team, she relocated to Europe and spent her final years in France. Her music experienced a resurgence in the late ‘80s when Chanel used “My Baby Just Cares For Me” in an ad campaign.
For the rest of her life, she recorded sporadically but toured consistently. Her autobiography, “I Put A Spell On You,” arrived in 1992. She quietly battled breast cancer and died in her sleep just a couple months after her 70th birthday. Ironically, two days before her death, she was awarded a degree from the Curtiss Institute.
The Montreux Jazz Festival first began in 1967, curated by Claude Nobs, Geo Voumard and Rene’ Langer. Still going strong nearly 65 years later, it has hosted everyone from Miles Davis to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Now the fine folks at BMG Records have collected some of Nina’s seminal appearances together in a two-disc set, Nina Simone: The Montreux Years. She played Montreux five times between 1968 and 1990. Disc one jumps back and forth between her 1976 set, with one selection each from 1981 and 1987 and several songs from her final performance. The collection begins with a dazzling solo piano rendering of the Gershwin classic, “Someone To Watch Over Me,” the lone offering from 1987.
Her 1976 set is well-represented, Nina seems genuinely stunned by the applause that greets her entrance, remarking, “You didn’t forget me, that’s what’s so wild, you didn’t forget me.” Her mien is surprisingly coy and flirtatious as she talks of her life in Liberia, before launching into a searing version of “Backlash Blues,” which she wrote with her friend, poet and social activist, Langston Hughes. Spiraling piano notes wash over a clattering backbeat, the arrangement is spare and bare-bones. The lyrics’ opening salvo detonates like alike a sharply phrased smart-bomb; “Mr. Blacklash, Mr. Backlash, just who do you think I am, you raise my taxes, freeze my wages and send my son to Vietnam/You give me second class houses and second-class schools, you think that all colored people in this country got to be second class fools.” As a ripple of applause breaks out she instructs the crowd to “give the drummer some,” and they oblige. It’s clear from that moment on that she has them in the palm of her hand.
Although “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” was written in 1963 by Jazz pianist Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas, Nina made it her own a few years later, co-opting it as a civil rights anthem. Her trilling piano runs are augmented by a syncopated rhythm. Here she randomly rearranges the verses positioning the last and most heartbreaking one first; “Well, I wish I could be like a bird in the sky, how sweet it would be if I found I could fly, I’d soar at the sun and look down to the sea, and I’d sing cause I know how it feels to be free.” As the tune progresses, piano notes take on a churchy cadence and her tone shapeshifts from Jazzy chanteuse to Gospel-inflected call-and-response. Here, she pointedly ad-libs “Everybody should be free, cause if we ain’t, we’re murderous”
She offers up a tender version of Janis Ian’s “Stars.” Plaintive piano shadings elide the melody’s margins, as the drummer hangs back behind the beat. Nina caresses the introspective lyrics, and it’s fascinating to hear midway through, she completely loses the lyrical thread. She quietly detours down a more personal path and then returns, righteously exclaiming, “I’m trying to tell my story, Janis Ian told it very well, Janis Joplin told it even better, Billie Holiday even told it even better/We always, we always, we always have a story.”
Reaching back to her very first album she presents a fractious version of her own instrumental composition, “African Mailman.” Breakneck piano chords ride roughshod atop a galloping drumbeat. This arrangement veers wildly away from the original’s infectious Afro-Cuban groove. She also conjures up a delicate read for one of her signature hits, “Little Girl Blue.” Gossamer piano notes still slyly quote the yuletide carol, “Good King Wenceslas,” and her smoky contralto remains suffused in sadness. But her playing becomes stormy and turbulent, as lyrics ponder the gender inequities for “little liberated girl blue.”
There’s a measure of irascibility surrounding her final Montreux set from 1990. Launching into “See-Line Woman,” a song whose roots can be traced to traditional African Folk music, she asks the crowd if they know the song and then becomes impatient when they don’t automatically participate in the infectious call-and-response, growling “I can’t hear YOU! The word is see-line.” The audience catches on, powerless to resist the undulating rhythms powered by conga and pulsating percussion.
By this point, Nina was living in the Netherlands, but it is clear, her years in Liberia still affected her deeply. That’s made evident by the inclusion of two tracks, “No Woman, No Cry” and “Liberian Calypso.” The former, of course, is one of Bob Marley’s most beloved songs, and she gives the late Reggae Revolutionary a shout-out before instructing the crowd to sing along. The original, first released in 1974, was a melancholy trip down memory lane. In Nina’s hands, lyrics take on a decidely feminist perspective. Meanwhile, the arrangement is lithe and supple, nimble guitar riffs thread through a tapestry of joyful piano, plangent vibraphone, Tuff Gong conga and a Rock Steady beat
She added her own lyrics to the traditional African melody on the latter. Her joy is palpable, as the song completely captures her heady, happy, slightly hedonistic days living on Africa’s West Coast. Twinkly percussion connects with buoyant piano, slinky guitar and a agile rhythm. The lyrics chronicle her escape from “the stench and smells” of America and her homecoming, of sorts, to Liberia. They also explicitly touch on an episode where she danced the night away in a local discotheque, shedding her clothes and going au natural. Of course, at the start of the song she becomes thoroughly irritated by the audience’s inability to punctuate each verse with the exultation “run Nina.” So she adopts a cranky schoolmarm tone until the crowd masters their part.
Other highlights of the set include the torchy kiss-off, “Don’t Smoke In Bed,” the bitter, brittle and Brechtian “Four Women” and the breezy standard, “What A Little Moonlight Can Do.” Oddly, she offers a curiously flat take of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” But she closes with the effervescent kick of “My Baby Just Cares For Me.” Powered by Nina’s pounding piano and a limber, shuffle-rhythm, her manner is equal parts blissful and blasé as she confides “Liz Taylor is not his style, and even Lana Turner’s smile is something he can’t see, my baby don’t care who knows, my baby just cares for me.” On the break her hands fly across the keys executing a series intricately playful flourishes that kind of take your breath away. The song exhibits a real joie de vivre, despite Miss Simone’s contrary demeanor.
The second disc in this collection presents Nina’s 1968 Casino Kursaal concert in its entirety. Here, she is at the height of her powers. Although four songs overlap from disc one, (“Backlash Blues,” “I Wish…,” “See-Line Woman” and Ne Me Quitte Pas”), it also features a furious “Go To Hell,” and tender renderings of “When I Was A Young Girl” and “Just In Time.”
At this point in her career, Nina managed to put her imprimatur on several Rock & Roll hits. For the Casino Kursaal show she offers up blistering versions of two recent hits from The Animals, “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “The House Of The Rising Sun.” She is also in fine fettle on a couple of Bee Gees’ cuts, the knotty “Please Read Me” and the bittersweet “To Love Somebody.” Best of all, she includes her mash-up of two songs from the counterculture Broadway musical, “Hair.”
By stitching “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” together, and rearranging the lyrics to suit her own purposes, she transformed an outre’ Hippie chant into a stinging indictment of White privilege coupled with a jubilant evocation of Black Power. This performance harnesses her outrage and vitriol, and redirects it toward joy and exultation.
Nina Simone may have never realized her Classical music aspirations, but her impact is still felt today. The Black Lives Matter movement owes a bit to her persistent commitment to Civil Rights. Her influence is evident in the music of Jeff Buckley, Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson and John Legend. If you only know her via 30 second snippets on commercials selling cars or toiletries, and taking a deep dive into her extensive oeuvre feels a bit intimidating, then “Montreux Years” offers an excellent jumping-off point. These recordings present Miss Simone in all her contradictory glory. By turns, gracious, aloof, coquettish and imperious, her haughty grandeur remains on full display. That’s exactly as it should be.