Miss Simone: The Life of Nina Simone

From the desk of Zach Manzi, Nu Deco Clarinetist

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This weekend, I watched What Happened, Miss Simone?, a 2015 documentary about the life of pianist, singer, and civil rights activist Nina Simone. As Nu Deco prepares to pay tribute to the music of Miss Simone, I’m reporting on this soberingly honest account of the human being behind the performer, a woman who strove at every moment to lead a meaningful existence. I’d recommend watching the whole documentary––it’s really moving––but for now I’m here to bring you some important background on Miss Simone.

Born in 1933, Nina Simone, née Eunice Kathleen Waymon, began her musical career as a classical pianist in her hometown of Tryon, NC. As a young black girl, Eunice had to literally cross the railroad tracks to get to her piano teacher’s house, a white woman pianist who sought to teach Eunice after hearing her play a recital that she put together herself. This teacher established a large fund in Eunice’s name that sent her to study at Juilliard, where she stayed for a year and a half until the fund began to run dry. Her family had moved from North Carolina to Philadelphia to be closer to her, so Eunice moved to be with her family and applied to study at the Curtis Institute of Music. She was denied admission because of her skin color, and never ended up going to the school, saying that she “never really got over that jolt of racism at that time.” Eunice vowed to one day become the first female black classical pianist to perform in Carnegie Hall.

At this point, Eunice felt desperate to make money––for herself and her family. She ended up taking a gig at a bar in Atlantic City for a summer, where she would play piano all night in an evening gown. After a short time, the owner of the bar insisted that she begin singing if she wanted to keep the job. Even though she was unsure of herself, she sang. Eunice began to build a reputation, and in order to protect her mother from learning that she was playing the “Devil’s Music,” she adopted the stage name Nina Simone. Nina because a former boyfriend named Chico used to call her “Niña” and Simone after the French actress Simone Signoret. Miss Simone worked insane hours (12-7 AM) just to make enough. She commented on this lifestyle being lonely, but when asked why she did it, had a firm response: “Couldn’t help it. I have to play, and I needed money. It was always a matter of necessity, from day to day, what I’m going to do. I didn’t even know I was going to stay in show business. I never thought about a choice.”

With this pragmatic yet somehow passive approach to her career, she started to find more opportunities for getting booked, and her career ended up taking off. She developed a beautiful voice, and her piano playing never lost its classical finesse. Miss Simone recorded a famous rendition of “I Loves you Porgy” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which in the documentary she is seen performing on Hugh Hefner’s 1960s TV show Playboy’s Penthouse (you may not hear a more beautiful performance of this song, so definitely find it around 22:00 in the doc, or listen on Spotify or YouTube). In these prosperous years, she married Andy Stroud, who ended up becoming her manager, and having a child, who became actress and singer Lisa Simone Kelly.

Miss Simone developed a sound the world had never heard. She brought all the complexity of classical music to her performance in jazz and popular music, saying that “when I’m most satisfied with my music, I call upon all the things I have learned in classical music.” She began to settle into her fame and success, at least apparently, and toured all over the world to perform.

These years brought Miss Simone her Carnegie Hall solo debut, although she did not play classical piano as she had once dreamed. Miss Simone seemed to pine for her life as a classical performer, at times waiting a while for her audiences to become silent before she began to perform, saying “I just wanted them to listen to the music like they did in the classical world.” On more than one occasion, she actually left performances before her set was over due to the inattentive behavior of audiences. She endured several bouts of depression during these tours, getting down about the nature of the music business and life of a touring musician.

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To compound the strain on her mental health, Miss Simone revealed to a close friend that her husband, Stroud, was physically and sexually abusing her. Because of a complicated co-dependency, Miss Simone stayed with Stroud for years after revealing this. In journals, she expressed her keen awareness about her troubled relationship with “fire,” as her daughter, Lisa, calls it.

The Birmingham riot of 1963 compelled Miss Simone to turn a corner in her life and career. She found new purpose in using music to advocate for social change, and in a way that was distinctly different from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Miss Simone had no problem promoting the use of violence––and actually at one point told Dr. King to his face that she was “not non-violent.” This new role found her great support from people of all skin colors in the U.S. who supported the fight for equal civil rights. Her unabashedly aggressive rhetoric carried her creative spirit this time, but promoters and presenters were afraid to go near her because of what they saw as radical messages. Her most famous and controversial song from this era, Mississippi Godddam, became a vital expression of the Civil Rights Movement and was banned by radio stations across the country. She performed the song at one of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Marches, and as her daughter Lisa tells it, “after singing that song, she got so angry that her voice broke, and from Mississippi Goddam on, it never returned to its former octave.” Miss Simone sacrificed her entire being for this work, writing in her journals, “I do not mind going without food or sleep as long as I am doing something worthwhile to me such as this.” This tireless approach to her work continued to take a toll that had started years ago in that Atlantic City bar.

The assassination of Dr. King seemed to take Miss Simone over an edge. After honoring him with a performance at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, she made some changes in her career and personal life, divorcing Stroud in the early 70s. At one point, she rather suddenly left her family and moved from the United States to Liberia, where she found some peace away from her career as a performer and the hostile civil climate of the U.S. She described this time as the happiest in her life; however, Lisa reports that upon moving to Liberia to be with her mother, Miss Simone became physically abusive toward her daughter. Lisa thus moved back to the U.S. to be with her father. After a while, when the financial situation became difficult without any work in Liberia, Miss Simone made the reluctant decision to resume her career. Unable to face the U.S., she moved to Switzerland and began taking what work she could get. She gave a peculiar performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival, in which she appeared exasperated and somewhat lost, stopping during a song to command an audience member to sit down. Without sustainable work in Switzerland, she moved to Paris on her own and took work in a bar that paid very little. A friend in France found her in rough shape and helped her get settled into a home in the Netherlands in 1988. In Holland, she saw a doctor, who diagnosed her with Manic Depressive Disorder (now known as Bipolar Disorder). She started taking medication, which began to give her the relief that she had needed for years.

In the later years of her life, Miss Simone discovered a newfound sense of peace and gratitude. She began performing again, opening up to her audiences more and more about her struggles and the toll it had taken on her soul. She lived in Holland mostly alone, which made her sad at times, and in an interview from that time admits that “everything has had to be sacrificed for the music.” She returned to Montreux in 1987 with a new humbling demeanor, performing with the same vivacity and finesse of her younger years. In her last several years, Miss Simone went across the world with a big smile on her face, playing tours she felt might be her last. In looking back on her life, Miss Simone didn’t regret the artistry and activism that had taken so much from her. A family friend and daughter of Malcom X, Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, captures Nina Simone’s life by saying, “Most people are afraid to be as honest as she lived.”

In the later years of her life, Miss Simone settled into the South of France and continued to tour. She received 15 Grammy nominations and the Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2000. Two days before she died, the Curtis Institute, which had denied her admission as a young musician, awarded her with an honorary doctorate. Miss Nina Simone passed away in France in 2003 at the age of 70.

Nu Deco’s latest symphonic suite will feature the music of Nina Simone at The Light Box, February 14-16, 2019. For tickets and to learn more about the all-female composer and artist program, please visit the concert page here.

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