Sunday, April 15, 2018

I'd soar to the sun, and look down at the sea. And I sing 'cause I know how it feels to be free.

Nina Simone. The embodiment of gospel, jazz, R&B, soul … and sass. God bless you if you experienced her poetic vocal ecstasy, good luck if you were on her bad side. Her improvisational genius and razor sharp edge fueled the defiance she needed to climb her way through the 1960’s music scene, despite it also cutting through numerous relationships in her life. At a time when female talent was chronically stifled by subservience, Nina became a symbol of power for black women – she charged through the music world marching to the beat of her own resonant drum: loud, clear and for the whole damn world to hear.

Nina (whose real name was actually Eunice Kathleen Waymon) was the son of a preacher from North Carolina. She sore to the sun not only as a musician, but also as a civil rights activist. With dreams of a career as a concert pianist, she molded her life to her ambition. When the time came for her to audition at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she nailed it. Her tryout was received with wide-eyed veneration, only for her to eventually find out she had been rejected based on race. [To make up for it, the Curtis Institute awarded her an honorary degree years later, two days before she died of breast cancer in 2003.] But, music was her love. And as Rumi reminds us:

Gamble everything for love, if you are a true human being. If not, leave this gathering. Half-heartedness doesn’t reach into majesty.

Nina pressed on.

As she continued to aspire to new musical heights, incorporating jazz, blues and “cocktail piano,” her parents’ disapproval grew, too. Eunice was playing “the devil’s music,” according to her family, thus leading her to change her name to Nina Simone as a disguise. In Atlantic City nightclubs, she entranced listeners with piano prowess, but was not allowed a vocal accompaniment. They said, “Sorry ma’am, we don’t have anyone for you. If you want to play here, you have to sing it yourself.” So she began singing as her own jazz accompaniment – a steep artistic challenge that launched her career as a jazz vocalist.

Eventually, Simone was named the 29th greatest singer of all time by Rolling Stone and one of the most influential recording artists of the 20th century by The Irish Times. She sold over a million albums, was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2009 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018.

So enjoy some Nina Simone favorites, and when you think about Eunice Kathleen Waymon, remember:

When you go through a hard period,
When everything seems to oppose you,
... When you feel you cannot even bear one more minute,
Because it is the time and place that the course will divert.

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