Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine


July/August 2012: Will Bonness

Nina Simone: Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club

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In 1954, a young classically trained pianist named Eunice Wayman took a job playing piano at the seedy Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. To hide the gig from her opinionated mother, a Methodist minister, Wayman adopted another name: Nina Simone. She took Nina (meaning ”girl” or “little one” in Spanish) from a pet name that a boyfriend had given her and Simone from the French actress Simone Signoret.

Nina Simone was an artist of enormous depth and influence. Black classical music was how she categorized her sound, which blended African rhythms, folk, blues, and gospel with jazz. Simone launched her career in the 1950s, a time when the music world was dominated by uncompromising men. She was outspoken about civil rights issues and contributed several important songs to the movement, including her scathing “Mississippi Goddam,” which was written in response to the death of four black children in a church bombing, and “Young, Gifted and Black,” which became an anthem for African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s.

From time to time, Simone hurt her career with much publicized outbursts of temper and sometimes bewildering changes in mood. There were concerts where she failed to show up. Her relationship with record companies was turbulent, with periods of no recording. After a disagreement with the IRS over unpaid taxes, she became disillusioned with life in the United States, and in 1974 she moved to Barbados. In the following years, she lived in Liberia, Switzerland, Paris, and the Netherlands before retiring to the south of France, where she lived until her death in 2003.

Some of the songs Simone played at the Midtown Bar can be found on her first album, Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club, sometimes called Little Girl Blue [Bethlehem #6028]. It was recorded in 1957 for the small independent label Bethlehem Records. Simone and her band, including Jimmy Bond on bass and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums, recorded for fourteen hours straight.

Simone’s original plan was to be the first black concert pianist, and “Love Me or Leave” shows her making good use of her Juilliard training by incorporating Bach for a couple of choruses. Her version of Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue,” in which she uses the melody of “Good King Wenceslas” as a counterpoint, is ingenious.

The marvelous, low-key intensity she brought to Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” earned her her first hit. Although Simone recorded the song several times over her career, this is the first and defining version.

Simone’s sensitive, heart-on-her-sleeve interpretation of ballads was one of her major strengths as a performer. She’s in top soulful form on the atmospheric “Don’t Smoke in Bed,” which was a hit for Peggy Lee in 1948.

 

“My Baby Just Cares for Me,” the best-known song on the album, was an afterthought. Simone’s producer decided that an extra uptempo song was needed to help balance the number of ballads that had been recorded. In 1987, thirty years after it was first released, the song was used as the theme for a British television commercial for the perfume Chanel No. 5. Releases as a single not long afterward, it sold 175,000 copies in the first week, making it a number-five chart hit in the U.K. Charly, the British label that licensed the material from Bethlehem, was not required to pay her, but allegedly offered $20,000 in royalties.

Nine Simone’s life was a long and intense journey, but along the way she created much beautiful music.


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