April 29, 2003
Nina Simone's voice has been a comforting and familiar presence in my life for as long as I can remember, and since hearing the news of her death on April 21, I've been listening to her songs almost exclusively and with sad but fresh ears.
The best way to capture the cultural legacy of someone like Simone is to listen to her music.
Nina Simone was much more than a "smoky-toned jazz and blues singer," as many writers have characterized her. Through her life and music she epitomized the essence of the black American -- and especially the black female -- experience.
Take the song "Four Women," an original Simone composition presented with a simple, hypnotic arrangement. Simone skillfully introduces us to four black women of differing skin tones and experiences. Without overstatement, we can picture and understand how each woman has struggled with her sense of beauty in a culture whose standard is defined by blonde hair and blue eyes. The last of the four women is the toughest of them all. "My skin is brown," she tells us. "My manner is tough / I'll kill the first mother I see / My life has been rough / I'm awfully bitter these days / Because my parents were slaves / What do they call me?" And with a bittersweet sense of humor and determination that encapsulates black female life, Simone screams the answer, "My name is Peaches!"
I've long admired Nina Simone's outspoken political beliefs. Most of Simone's original compositions like "Four Women" were labeled "protest songs" because of their unqualified condemnation of racism.
In "Mississippi Goddam" Simone sings, "All I want is equality for my sister my brother my people and me," adding, "Oh, but this whole country is full of lies." The song was written in the early 1960s in response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and four young girls in a church bombing in Alabama.
"All the truths I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face," Simone writes in her autobiography, "I Put A Spell On You." "I suddenly realized what it was to be black in America in 1963 -- it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination." As the New York Times stated after her death, "In the 1960s, no musical performer was more closely identified with the civil-rights movement."
The Simone composition that most influenced me was "To Be Young, Gifted and Black." As the powerful verse exclaims, "To be young, gifted and black / Open your heart to what I mean."
That song more than any other gave us a feeling of pride, worth and hope for an equal place in the future, despite seeing the horrific images of the violence perpetrated against young blacks involved in the civil-rights struggles in the South.
When Nina Simone sang, you were compelled to listen.
She was the ultimate in sultry vocal sophistication and she could modulate her instrument to fit the mood of any American musical tradition: show tunes and folk, rock and classical, jazz and gospel.
On "Let It All Out," her 1966 Phillips release, Simone dances through a lilting cover of Duke Ellington's "Mood Indigo" as easily as she spins out a hypnotic and haunting interpretation of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain." On the same recording, she also does down-home gospel ("Nearer Blessed Lord") and folk/rock (Bob Dylan's "The Ballad of Hollis Brown").
At the center of it all, however, her sound was always unmistakably that of a black woman.
Simone grew up playing piano in her mother's church and accompanying singers who worked in more popular music settings. And her keyboard skills were extraordinary. She began her formal musical training on the instrument and studied it briefly at the Julliard School of Music.
As a musician who was raised in the black music tradition but who studied music in the classical world, I also love Nina Simone for synthesizing her diverse musical training into a style that was uniquely and unmistakably her own.
Fortunately, Simone has produced more than 40 recordings that will allow listeners for generations to come to explore and enjoy the talents of an artist who defies categorization and quick summation.
Simone was notorious for berating audiences for not giving her music their full attention. "When you play you give all your concentration to the music because it deserves total respect, and an audience should sit still and be quiet," she wrote in her autobiography.
These days, no other music seems to satisfy my ear the way that Nina Simone's does, and I find myself listening with a quiet and intense focus. I think she would have liked that.