Intend to Be Independently

by Miklos Billings on April 23, 2015

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Jazz has long been a fusion of multiple musical genres that results from the bridging of typically separate cultural forces. Jazz musicians develop their dynamism by necessity; their bills being paid essentially by the audience, jazz players survive best who can play whatever the people want to hear. Nina Simone’s tumultuous uphill journey from her humblest of beginnings in Tryon, North Carolina to her breakout hit “I Loves You, Porgy” and following ascent to the throne of the “High Priestess of Soul,” was not unusual in this way.[1]

She dreamed as a youth to become a concert pianist and showed prodigious talent playing at church from a young age. Aided by community contributions, Simone was afforded the opportunities to take piano lessons and attend the Allen School for Girls in Asheville, North Carolina. Unflinching in her aspirations to this point, she proceeded to audition for the Curtis Institute to study piano but failed to gain acceptance. Simone’s vehement belief was that she was rejected for her race, despite later denial of the notion by the Institute.[2] Upon moving to New York City to attend Juilliard, Simone found herself in a time and place offering extremely limited mobility to African-Americans such as herself; Simone was pigeonholed as a jazz singer.

However, she was still unwilling to give up the roots she forged as a classical pianist, infusing her solos and arrangements with homages to Bach and Liszt, among countless other enduring composers. The way in which she made these combinations work demonstrated a deep understanding of the intricacies of both far-flung genres. She was able to shift easily between the rigid and ahead-of-the-beat rhythmic tendencies of classical and the laid-back, in-the-pocket grooves of jazz in a manner that seems musically coy from either background.[3]

Nina Simone, even on her debut album Little Girl Blue (1958), made musical offerings that defied easy categorization. She herself considered her reputation as a jazz musician and even the use of the term “jazz” itself to be racially coded. In her autobiography she said, “to me, ‘jazz’ meant a way of thinking, a way of being, and the black man in America was jazz in everything he did… Jazz music was just another aspect of the whole thing, so in that sense because I was black I was a jazz singer but in every other way I most definitely wasn’t.” She preferred to call the brand of soulful, multicultural music she took part in “black classical music.”[4]

After satisfying her contractual obligations to her label, RCA, in the 1970s Simone began to travel in search of an environment that was a better fit for her than America, visiting countries including Liberia, Barbados, and several European nations before settling in France in 1993. Simone’s version of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” from her debut album was an unexpected hit in Europe in the late 1980s after it was used in an advertisement. Like Chet Baker and others, Europe’s increasingly discerning and voracious audiences provided a second stage for Simone toward the end of her career.[5]

[1] “Bio.” The Official Home of Nina Simone. September 23, 2010. Accessed March 15, 2015. http://www.ninasimone.com/bio/.

[2] Nina Simone: The Legend. 2002. Film.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Simone, Nina, and Stephen Cleary. I Put A Spell On You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone. New York: Pantheon Books, 1991.

[5] “Bio.” http://www.ninasimone.com/bio/.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nick J May 1, 2015 at 7:16 am

I really liked this article. I thought you did a really great job on portraying how Nina Simone felt about jazz. I thought it was a really interesting point that people just labeled her as a jazz singer just because she was black even though she sang classical music.

How did she interact with other artist? Was she just as big of a hit in the black community as in the white?

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Adam McDaniel April 26, 2015 at 12:53 pm

Very interesting background on Nina Simone.
It’s very interesting and endearing that when she was growing up, her community pitched in to support her musical training. When she was taking lessons as a young girl, who specifically was providing her with financial support? Was it a church congregation?
Regarding her application and subsequent rejection from the Curtis Institute of Music: The Curtis Institute is located in Philadelphia, PA, which is a city with a serious history of racial tension. However, whether or not Simone’s rejection was based on her race is questionable because the acceptance rate is so small; the acceptance rate percentage is as small as Harvard University. I’ve read varying percentages from 4%-7%! On the other hand, there has been a long-standing stigma against African Americans playing classical music, so there very well could have been racial discrimination. Nevertheless, Simone impressively faced racial adversity head-on and dramatically impacted the history of jazz and R&B- and without prestigious college credentials.

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