Ah, Nina. If anyone deserves a Baz Spotlight it’s Juilliard-level classical pianist Eunice Waymon, turned Nina Simone, High Priestess of Soul. On a recent trip to one of our fave BazPlaces, the Young Vic, we saw posters for a new original production of ‘Nina: A Story About Me and Nina Simone’ by Josette Bushell-Mingo, and we can not think better material for a one woman show. As that, in effect was what she was: a one-woman powerhouse. All of this and more inspired us to dust off our Spotlight Skills to give one of our fave female heroines the Baz treatment. In our Baz manifesto, we’re keen for any performance of ours to directly relate to our audiences: to make them think, and feel. Nina would achieve this through her art, her playing, her voice, every pore in her body, given over to the live experience: and that’s what makes her one of our favourite artists.
We love Nina not only for her amazing, nearly miraculous skill and talent, but also the mantel she inherited to be a leading voice in the civil rights and feminist movement. The daughter of a preacher, Nina, then Eunice, learnt about commanding and guiding a crowd, watching her mother give services, drawing out the shared experience - and played the church organ at six or seven to a flabbergasted crowd. She was hailed as having god-given talent. She graduated to giving recitals and even auditioned for the prestigious Curtis Institute - but whilst being told she possessed great skill, was denied entry. Considering that this was America in the early fifties, it’s not hard to guess why this happened to Nina.
She still took lessons from a classical pianist, but the woman we know of now was a woman of Jazz and Blues. Her performances were hailed as legendary, and stories of certain gigs go down in music lore. Though often filled with joy, a love of music and the sacred shared experience from her young church days, there were times she would be difficult, and confrontational with management and even audiences. There may have been a reason for this however, as Nina suffered from a bipolar disorder and struggled with depression and addiction throughout her life. She also suffered domestic abuse at the hands of her manager and husband - a connection thankfully that ended but left her damaged. The tragedy of her personal life adds to her legend, however, as she is heralded as a survivor of abuse and mental health with her natural cool, talent and passion - truly paving the way both as a sufferer, a creative, a survivor and an inspiration.
Though she was the High Priestess of Soul, Nina takes a lot of inspiration from the stage - we here at Baz HQ think she would have made an excellent actress. Many of her most known tracks are taken from musicals: ‘Ain’t got no/I Got Life’ is from Hair, ‘I Loves You Porgy’ from Porgy and Bess - she loved the theatre tradition, and there was a definite performance element to her shows that made it not the usual torrid 12-track, pale rundown of the latest album. To this end, ‘Pirate Jenny’ from Brecht’s ‘The Threepenny Opera’ was a decidedly and deliberately malevolent affair, full of deliberate pauses, staring down the audience and Nina singing with aggressive violence. Top 40 performance this was not, and you hear a pin drop in the live recording. Ever the activist, using the original lyrics, Nina makes a salient point in ‘Pirate Jenny’, the theme of which would dictate her body of work:
But I’m counting your heads
As I’m making the beds
Cos nobody’s sleeping here tonight
Ain’t nobody sleeping here
It’s a performance Brecht would be proud of: odd, whispered lyrics, discordant stabbing rhythms with the context quite clear. It was more than the recital of a song: it was a character, a monologue intended to get a reaction from the audience, earning her reputation as a true performer. Sickened by the injustice of racism, the segregation, and the murder of the time in which she lived, it’s no surprise Nina wrote her first civil rights themed song as as a showtune, introducing it in Carnegie Hall in 1964:
“The name of this song is Mississippi Goddamn. And I mean every word of it. It’s a showtune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.”
Famous Interviews where she spoke out, criticising desegregation and the ‘Go Slow’ peaceful movement and even Dr. King himself followed, and she grew frustrated by not being able to be out on the streets, in the conflict. Songs, and albums like ‘Baltimore’ - became civil rights anthems and this continued as a rich vein through her career. Her frustration with not being at the forefront of the movement, her repeated calls to arms, showed a kind of lack in belief of her own ability or with a perceived lack of impact are shown by history to be quite incorrect: she provided the soundtrack of the civil rights movement, and was intrinsic in keeping it relevant and alive: chanted at marches, performed at political gatherings, printed on placards. It’s both a testament to her bravery but a sad reflection on modern society that her tunes are still relevant today.
She also celebrated her womanhood, and particularly her pride at being a black woman, with songs like ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’ to also boldly singing about a woman’s sensuality, something that in that era was not decent or the done thing: how it’s okay to be sensual and express desire: ‘I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl’ is a great example, and you can hear her having great flirty fun with audiences performing it live. She also however, highlighted the plight of being a black woman, perfectly in her tune ‘Four Women’ where she describes no matter the background, the personality, the flavour, even the hairstyle, black women are fetishised and disrespected, not only by their race, but also their gender. Her entire back catalogue of work is a legacy of influential proportions: no other artist tackled and wrestled into submission so many themes, issues and conflict whilst retaining her own unique style and instantly recognisable rich, impassioned voice. She is instantly relatable, true to her word and an emotional performer, something you can really get a sense of even from old archives and videos. Especially seen here by a formerly upbeat Jazz standard 'Tomorrow Is My Turn' here performed almost as a dirge, a reflection of Nina's emotion at the time, coming out through her music:
However, as well as this, we love her passion, and her wit - her playfulness, often playing without a net, starting a song on an off beat, not signalling her band, stopping performances to shout or compliment the audience: to us she understood art, and it’s ability to empower, to point fingers, make change, expose, heal and generally do what great art is supposed to: make you feel. We’re supremely jealous of anyone who got to see her live, and can imagine sitting in your seat, engrossed and yet nervous: unsure if you’re about to be stared down, shouted at, called up onstage, or earn yourself a wink. Delightfully talented and unpredictable, going from the angry, bitter ‘Backlash Blues’ to the quiet, loving ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ your hackles are raised, and then lowered, soothed. It’s no surprise Eunice has stuck around,as you get the distinct feeling she has more to say. All-round performer, a goddess at the piano, we cheers Nina Simone, paving the way for female artists in all forms.
Here’s Nina in one of her first performances on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1960 - her classical training comes out in the bridge as she improvises on a Bach-like theme, showing the depth of her skill, and the cool, often playful way she would charm audiences with it, watch as she Puts a Spell On You:
With Peace and Love,