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Swing Music Net Biography
Nina Simone
Nina Simone
Classically trained pianist switched to jazz and crossed over into many other genres of music
Jazz recordings like My Baby Just Cares For Me, Love Me Or Leave Me and Mood Indigo swing heartily and delight jazz piano and vocal fans
Nina Simone
Wayman, Eunice Kathleen
singer, piano, songwriter, composer
Born Tryon, N.C., 2-21-1933
Died; 4-21-2003
Jazz Joint Jump Jazz Radio Audio
The live feed of our weekly jazz radio show piping through the Internet via the audio player of your choice. It swings, it grooves, it jumps, it moves. Stringent RIAA and FCC regulations now prohibit complimentary water.

Our Jazz Radio Show Info Page
The sordid history of our weekly big band music radio show, live since 1985. Proves that FCC radio deregulation survival may be linked to narcissistically twisted disorders.

Pre Swing Era Jazz History
Early hot jazz bands, the hotel dance bands and early jazz history leading up to the Big Band era.

Pre Swing Era World Report
The role of economics, early recording technology, and radio relative to the conception of the Big Band era.

The Recording Ban Of 1942
Scans of a 1942 Down Beat magazine article detailing one of the most devastating events of the Big Band era; the James Petrillo / AFM recording ban.

Webb Cuts Basie At The Savoy
Another of the many historic jazz magazine articles from Down Beat here on the site. This piece details the Count Basie vs. Chick Webb big band music Battle Of Swing held at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in January of 1938.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 in North Carolina, the sixth of seven children in a poor family. She began playing the piano at age 4 and was classically trained, attending the Juilliard School in New York for one year. She had hoped to attend the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but was rejected — one of many disappointments she would attribute to racism.

Simone turned to singing jazz and popular music as a way to make money, performing in nightclubs in Philadelphia and Atlantic City, N.J. In the late 1950s Simone recorded her first tracks, including "Plain Gold Ring" and "Don't Smoke in Bed." But she gained fame in 1959 with her recording of "I Loves You Porgy," from the George and Ira Gershwin Broadway musical, "Porgy & Bess." Soon Nina Simone the nightclub singer became Nina Simone the star, performing at Town Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival.

There was a time when Nina Simone was dubbed "the high priestess of soul," a term she hated, not only because it smacked of marketing hype but because it tried to put her in a box she'd never have fit in comfortably. While Simone certainly invested all her work with soul, she blurred boundaries and jumped genres, embracing jazz, pop, blues, spirituals, folk, French chansons, African song and the works of contemporary songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Bee Gees and the Beatles -- Simone's reading of "Here Comes the Sun" remains a transcendent moment of elegance and joy. Simone was also one of the first African American artists to embrace traditional African garb, adding regal bearing to her already dramatic presence.

Simone was a crucial voice in the civil rights era, when some of her most striking work addressed the horrors and injustices attending blacks in the South, incendiary tracts like "Mississippi Goddam" (inspired by the 1963 Birmingham church bombing that killed four black girls), "Old Jim Crow" and "Backlash Blues" (based on a poem written for Simone by Langston Hughes). Like jazz artists Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach and Charles Mingus, Simone used her populist platform to shine a bright light into ugly corners of American society.

It is ironic that Simone's first and only American hit came early in her career. The 1957 recording of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" went Top 20, the only Top 40 entry of a career that covered 45 years. Confirming the vagaries of pop culture, Simone did enjoy a top-five single in England in 1987, when a three-decade-old recording of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" -- from the same "Little Girl Blue" album that included "Porgy" -- became a hit after being used in a television commercial.

What was always evident in Simone's style was a powerful contralto that expressed her highly personal interpretations of varied materials, subtly shaded by her assured piano underscoring. You can hear Nina's classical training come out on many of her recordings. She initially trained to be a classical pianist, but found there to be few opportunities in the field for African Americans in the 1950s. It was then that in order to support her further musical education, she made a living accompanying classical singers. When an opportunity to work in an Atlantic City lounge cropped up in 1954, it was on the condition that she sang as well as played. That's when Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone, out of fear of offending her handyman father and, perhaps more important, her Methodist minister mother. Up to that point, Simone had never sung in public.

Simone started off exploring the Great American Songbook, but also expanded her repertoire with stately spirituals like "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and reconstituted folk standards like "House of the Rising Sun" and "Black Is the Color of My True Love's Hair." Whatever the material, Simone offered it on her terms.

Her recording career started in the mid-'50s on the Bethlehem label, and even though she was never a particularly "commercial" presence, she was prolific: The online site All Music Guide lists almost 100 albums (including compilations). Many of the best are live albums that capture the artist's charisma, tenderness and fervor -- as well as the occasional firestorm of anger and frustration. Because Simone was so productive, particularly in the first two decades of her career, she could be annoyingly erratic and inconsistent on record: her best-ofs are often the best representation of less-than-stellar efforts, but there's usually at least one gem on every album she recorded.

By the late '60s, Nina Simone had grown weary of American racial politics and frustrated with the level of her commercial success. She relocated to Europe, where she felt more appreciated as both an artist and a black person. She lived at various times in Switzerland, France and England, as well as Liberia and Barbados. When Simone performed at Lisner Auditorium in 1992, it was her first Washington appearance in 15 years; her last was in June of 2001, when she filled Constitution Hall with fans who excused the singer's time-worn voice and apparent health problems and enthusiastically applauded her indomitable spirit and proud history.

Ray Charles Biography
Known as "The Genius" Ray Charles recorded a wide variety of music but got his start playing big band music and jazz. He passed away 6-10-04.

Barney Kessel Biography
The jazz guitar great died May 6th, 2004 and left behind a vast body of recorded jazz work.

Benny Carter Biography
Benny Carter was one of the greatest arrangers and jazz musicians the genre has ever known. This extensive biography spans the entire lengthy carreer of the jazz legend.

Billy May Biography
The trumpeter, bandleader, composer and arranger died Jan. 22, 2004. May wrote many Swing Era classics for Glenn Miller and Charlie Barnet and later for Sinatra and Nat Cole.

Count Basie Biography
Our biography of Count Basie traces the career of "the kid from Red Bank" through Kansas City and into the later stages of his life as a bandleader.

Anita O’Day Biography
Not your typical big band “canary” Anita’s voice was heard soaring over the brassy bands of Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton during the Swing era. She later released a number of fine swinging albums for Norman Granz on his Clef, Norgran and Verve record labels. She died 11-23-06 at 87.

Ray Charles Biography
Known as "The Genius" Ray Charles recorded a wide variety of music but got his start playing big band music and jazz. He passed away 6-10-04.

Shirley Horn Biography
Shirley Horn predated Dianna Krall and Harry Connick Jr.as the premiere singing pianist in jazz since Nat "King" Cole. The use of pauses and breaks in her playing and singing ala Basie and Ahmad Jamal conveyed a relaxed, confident feeling of swing. She passed away in October of 2005.

Louis Armstrong Biography
The trumpet solos and vocals of the great Satchmo are the most identifiable in jazz. This biography traces the career of Louis Armstrong from his days in New Orleans.

Dakota Staton Biography
In her early career Dakota Staton showed the influences of Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan. In later years her huskier tone leaned more toward blues and gospel. Discography is included.

February 19, 2010


Under a Strange, Soulful Spell



The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone

By Nadine Cohodas

Illustrated. 449 pages. Pantheon Books. $30.

In 1960, one year after Nina Simone’s first album, “Little Girl Blue,” was released, the poet Langston Hughes struggled to put the appeal of Simone’s music and presence — that dusky voice, that unblinking gaze — into words. “She is strange,” Hughes wrote in The Chicago Daily Defender. “So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet and Bertolt Brecht. She is far out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire.”

Hughes was just getting warmed up. “She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis and John Donne. So is Mort Sahl, so is Ernie Banks.” He continued: “You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — wheee-ouuueu! You do!”

Simone soon befriended Hughes, and through him she dove into the beating heart of that era’s young black intelligentsia, becoming close to both James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, who would become godmother to Simone’s daughter. That Simone was absurdly talented was already clear. But her new friends helped crystallize her inchoate political thinking.

One result was a stunning song, “Mississippi Goddam,” written by Simone in the wake of the 1963 Birmingham church bombings and the killing of the civil rights advocate Medgar Evers. In many respects it represented the pinnacle of what would become a long and tangled career. “Alabama’s got me so upset,” Simone sang. “Tennessee made me lose my rest./But everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.”

It was a song that inserted her into the forefront, at least musically, of the civil rights movement. Its recording is a moment that Nadine Cohodas’s fascinating if turgid new biography of Simone, “Princess Noire,” builds toward and then falls away from. In the case of her career, that falling away was a long, slow and painful one into mental illness, megalomania and increasingly strange behavior.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C., in 1933. She was one of eight children. Her father worked a variety of jobs (cook, dry cleaner, barber), and her mother was a Methodist minister. People knew right away that she was special. When she was 8 months old, she could hum “Down by the Riverside.” At 2 ½ she could play a church organ.

Simone’s dream was to become a concert pianist, and she studied briefly at Juilliard. She was devastated when she was turned down by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, a rejection that may have been racially motivated, Ms. Cohodas writes. To pay the rent Simone began playing in bars, where she treated her gigs almost like concert recitals. She began to sing as well as play and took Nina Simone as a stage name in part, Ms. Cohodas suggests, to hide from her mother that she was playing in sometimes unsavory places.

Simone had, almost immediately, an electric effect on listeners. She brought to the stage, one critic wrote, “an atmosphere of blue lights and sad memories.” On her first LP Simone recorded a version of “I Loves You, Porgy,” and it became a Top 20 hit.

Before long she was playing the Village Vanguard in New York and the Newport Jazz Festival, even appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And she was pouring out the songs that would define the early part of her career: “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” “Sinnerman,” “Feeling Good,” “I Put a Spell on You.”

From the start audiences and critics had trouble pinning Simone down. She was a classically trained pianist, but her work also drew upon jazz, gospel, the blues, folk and European art songs. When the jazz writer Ralph J. Gleason described her as “some exotic queen of some secret ritual,” he was commenting on her comportment as much as her sound.

Simon was a remote and formidable presence onstage, not afraid to stop a song midchord in order to chew out a talky audience member. While playing at the Apollo Theater in Harlem in 1961, she snapped, “For the very first time in your lives, act like ladies and gentlemen at the Apollo.”

Her anger spilled over offstage too. After the Animals had a hit in 1965 with “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” a song that was written for Simone, she confronted the band’s lead singer, Eric Burdon. “So you’re the honky,” she said, “who stole my song and got a hit out of it?”

Simone became increasingly politicized in the late 1960s and early ’70s. She recorded some intense and moving songs, — including “Four Women,” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” based on a play derived from Hansberry’s unfinished writings — and began dressing her sidemen in dashikis. But she also alienated audiences, showing up late or not at all, hectoring them from the stage.

The second half of “Princess Noire” chronicles Simone’s slow descent into mental illness; she was ultimately diagnosed as having schizophrenia, Ms. Cohodas writes. There are suicide attempts and frightening moments onstage and in hotels. When a friend took Simone to a musical revue in Washington, she began speaking to the onstage performers from her seat.

She was given to bitter onstage utterances like “I don’t wear a painted smile on my face, like Louis Armstrong.” She demanded she be called “Dr. Simone” after receiving an honorary degree from Amherst College. She claimed in one interview to be the reincarnation of an Egyptian queen.

Nina Simone was married twice and had a daughter, Lisa, but to many people she often seemed lonely. She didn’t take care of her money and was in constant financial trouble. She left the United States in 1973 and lived in Liberia and Barbados before moving to France, where she died in 2003, apparently after a stroke.

Simone wrote an autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You,” that was published in 1991, but Ms. Cohodas is convincing on the subject of that book’s factual deficiencies. Ms. Cohodas has clearly done her research, but “Princess Noire” remains a strangely distanced and brittle biography.

The book describes concert after numbing concert, until all the stage patter gets mixed up in your mind. At times it reads less like a biography than a depersonalized series of performance reviews snatched from Variety. The arc of Simone’s life story becomes blurred and often lost.

Reading “Princess Noire,” you also wish that Ms. Cohodas, whose previous book was a biography of Dinah Washington, put her critical voice to stronger use. Nina Simone recorded an avalanche of music (“I made 39 albums, and they’ve pirated 70,” she complained in the 1980s), plenty of it lame. Ms. Cohodas doesn’t spend much time wading through this material, helping us compile our mental playlists or directing us toward worthy, lesser-known Simone recordings.

“Talent is a burden not a joy,” Simone said during a sloppy, uncomfortable 1978 concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. “I am not of this planet. I do not come from you. I am not like you.”

Nina Simone was not, this biography makes clear, quite like anyone. That night in London she pulled herself together and played a final song, a dark version of “I Put a Spell on You.” And then she walked off the stage.


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