After being denied entry to The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia on the basis of her skin colour, Eunice Waymon defied subservience by adopting the name Nina Simone. She went on to use her classical musical education to forge out a career for herself, transcending through the genres of pop, folk, jazz and the blues, as well as civil rights music and show tunes.
Having been spoon-fed the classical music titans – J.S. Bach, Beethoven and Mozart – from a young age, Simone was proficient in classical piano, and used it as a blueprint for her to gain access to and manipulate jazz and pop music. This resulted in an artist who had the natural ability to communicate with Gershwin and Bach simultaneously.
Examples of this mastery are archived on the internet for audiences to continue to marvel at. Namely, in 1987 playing live at Montreux, when Simone combined Walter Donaldson’s ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’ with a Bach-style piano instrumental, the audience understood that this was her way of conveying her own story and split sense of self: the former side of her, the little girl, Eunice, who was unable to fulfil a childhood dream of a career as a classical pianist and the latter, Nina, a creation who had to use jazz and pop to cement herself within the music industry, to the detriment of self-fulfilment.
Despite the bitterness that festered in Simone, her music remained innovative and her performances were never identical. Situated at the piano, she was always in control of the music and was able to channel her anger into music, particularly in her songs focussing on civil rights. The inaccessibility to a musical career which she had initially encountered as an African-American artist inspired her to fight against racial inequality in American society. She breached this issue through songs such as ‘Mississippi Goddam’, an original of Simone’s, and – most famously – ‘Strange Fruit’.
These two songs documented the oppression present within black society and were both turning points in Simone’s career; taking her out of the mainstream spotlight of jazz to highlight an incredibly pertinent issue.
These songs, performed during the 60s, remain as relevant as ever in today’s society, and signify Simone’s enduring imprint on both music and culture. Her cover of ‘Aint Got No – I Got Life’ (her own combination of two ensemble songs from the musical ‘Hair’) has been most recently used in the Müller yoghurt advert, something arguably benign in comparison to the violent civil rights protests of the 60s. However, it is this juxtaposition that reveals the genius and timelessness of Simone’s career and how, through her music, she can take any form and still convey a message.
Although some listeners attest that they ‘don’t know what I’m talking about’ in her iconic track ‘Isn’t It A Pity’, they understand Simone’s argument that dreams must never be sacrificed in ‘I’m gonna tell you soon’. She has always been, and always will be, The High Priestess of Soul.