OBITUARY: Nina Simone, diva with a cause, 70



While Simone’s life may have been extinguished, her fire will go on

Pianist, singer, arranger, composer, and activist Nina Simone died Monday, April 21, of natural causes at her home in Carry-le-Rouet near Marseille in southern France. She was 70 years old.

Simone came to the forefront of the music world through her soulful renditions of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and “I Loves You Porgy” (from Porgy and Bess) released in 1958 on Bethlehem Records. When these tunes became hits, Simone went from nightclubs to such prestigious venues as The Town Hall, the Newport Jazz Festival, and Carnegie Hall. But performing as a jazz singer or “the high priestess of soul” (as many have dubbed her) was not how she had originally envisioned her Carnegie Hall debut.

Born Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone was a child prodigy, playing piano by ear at age 3 and beginning formal study by age 5. Through the support of a fund set up by her piano teacher, Simone was able to attend The Juilliard School of Music. Simone aspired to be one of the great interpreters of Bach and Beethoven, but a rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where she had hoped to continue her studies, a rebuff she attributed to racism, dashed her dreams.

Although she veered onto a much more eclectic track, her classical training always figured prominently in the music she was destined to create. In the years following her rejection from Curtis, Simone turned to jazz, gospel, spiritual, folk, and popular music. In 1954, to help support her family, she took a job at an Irish bar in Atlantic City. The owner required that she sing (up until this point, she was only a pianist), and Eunice Waymon changed her name to Nina (“little one”) Simone (picked out of admiration for French actress Simone Signoret) and entered show biz. In the nearly 50 years that followed, Simone’s repertoire of interpretations, arrangements, and compositions always embraced a full spectrum of musical styles, bound together by a severity and directness of expression that defined Simone as one of the unique musical voices of the 20th century.

She, like many black artists who came of age during the Civil Rights Era, was disdainful toward the term “jazz.” In an interview originally appearing in Details magazine she explained, “To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that’s not what I play. I play black classical music. That’s why I don’t like the term ‘jazz,’ and Duke Ellington didn’t either—it’s a term that’s simply used to identify black people.”

Race relations always figured prominently into Simone’s philosophy on life and her approach to music, and she penned several politically-motivated songs. She wrote one of her most famous of this genre, “Mississippi Goddam,” in 1963 in response to the Birmingham church bombing that killed 4 black girls. “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black,” co-written by Weldon Irvine Jr., honored playwright Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and was at one point considered for the Black National Anthem.

In 1974, disappointed with what she considered the failure of the Civil Rights movement as well as the greed-driven record and show business industries, she left for Barbados. Over the next several decades, her self-imposed exile from the United States brought her to Liberia, Switzerland, Paris, the Netherlands, and the south of France. To her, there was no hope left for black people in the United States.

“I believed that at one time it was possible to change the race problem,” she told Interview magazine. “I believed that it was possible for Martin Luther King to become president, for Jesse Jackson to become president. But I don’t believe that anymore. My anger was fire and I was pushing that all that time, but I’m not angry now. I’m philosophical, and I am happy where I am because I can’t change the world. I’m getting older and I have no business being out there preaching like I did.”

And while during her final years in pastoral Provence she may have taken a more philosophical worldview, those who talked to her or saw her perform in the past few years would confirm that the fire was still smoldering.

“I want to be remembered as a diva from beginning to end who never compromised in what she felt about racism and how the world should be, and who to the end of her days consistently stayed the same.” (Detail)

Simone’s daughter Lisa Celeste Stroud (known professionally simply as Simone), will take a break from her run starring in Aida on Broadway and lead mourners at the funeral service which is expected to be held on Friday in Carrey-le-Rouet, France at the local Roman Catholic church. Details have not yet been worked out.

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