April 21st marks the 11-year anniversary of the death of Nina Simone. The singer, known as The High Priestess Of Soul, fought a lengthy battle with breast cancer before passing away at the age of 70.
Simone was born in North Carolina to two Methodist ministers, and named Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She later changed her name to Nina Simone in order hide her identity as a jazz singer from her mother who viewed jazz as the devil’s music. The artist adopted her stage name after the French actress, Simone Signoret.
Simone was a classically trained pianist who was blessed with perfect pitch. At age 4, she began taking piano lessons which were funded by her mother’s employer, Muriel Mazzanovich. The piano lessons proved to be fruitful and Simone eventually attended The Juilliard School. Although the young pianist had been admitted to the prestigious New York school, she was rejected by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, a disappointment that the singer carried throughout her life.
In order to support herself in New York, Simone performed at various clubs along the Atlantic seaboard including Greenwich Village’s legendary Village Vanguard and Harlem’s Apollo Theater. Simone would eventually score her first and only Billboard Top 20 hit with “I Loves You Porgy,” from her 1958 debut album, Little Girl Blue.
While Simone could have easily kept churning out pop songs, she could not ignore the Civil Right’s Movement and the fight for equality that engulfed the 1960’s. Songs like “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women,” and her rendition of Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” are all examples of Simone’s commitment to using her platform to incite change. On March 25th, 1965, Simone played a concert alongside Harry Belafonte, Leonard Bernstein, Sammy Davis Jr., and others at the end of the Selma-Montgomery March. On April 7th, 1968, just three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Simone performed “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” a song written by her bassist, Gene Taylor, in commemoration of Dr. King’s death.
Simone continued performing long after the Civil Rights Movement ended. During an interview, concert promoter George Wein recalled Simone’s 2001 Carnegie Hall performance as, “One of the most amazing evenings I had ever seen in my years.”
While The High Priestess of Soul never did achieve her goal of becoming a concert pianist, it is safe to say that her legacy will forever be cemented. Simone had a knack for taking the difficult topics of her day and turning them around into song. Her lyrics didn’t offer any advice on how to change what was going on, they were simply her way of reaching her audience to let them know that they weren’t alone in the struggle.
Simone’s talent and legacy doesn’t lie in her prodigious piano playing or her perfect pitch, no more than Beethoven’s legacy can be found in his ability to write symphonies as a deaf man. Simone’s legacy – any artist’s legacy – lies in her uncanny ability to communicate with her audience and let them know that she’s also feeling what they’re feeling.
Learn more about the life and legacy of Nina Simone here.
As part of our way to honor our High Priestess, Revive will be hosting A Blues For Nina this Wednesday, April 23rd, at Harlem’s Minton’s. Pianists Raymond Angry and Chris Rob along with vocalist Nadia Washington will perform from the legendary Harlem bandstand. Manning the wheels of steel will be DJ OP! as he spins classic jazz cuts for the 11 p.m. Harlem After Dark late night series. Dinner will be served during the 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. shows. For reservations, click here.