Saturday, February 27, 2021

Jazz Stories XI: Nina Simone

No one knows what gives some people courage to speak out and makes others silent even when they know something is wrong. But it was clear that even as a young girl, Nina Simone had the nerve to stand up for what she knew was right. 

 

Like Hazel Scott, Nina showed her talent at the piano as young as four years old. By the time she was 12, she was ready to give her first classical music concert. When her parents were forced to move to the back of the auditorium to give up their front row seats for some white people, Nina refused to play until they got their seats back. And they did. 

 

In 1950, at the age of 17, she was encouraged to audition to attend the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia. Her family had moved there from North Carolina expecting that she would be accepted, but she was denied admission and suspected that racism as the reason. Her sense of injustice was growing, like a heavy weight trying to push her down. But instead of being defeated, she became a weightlifter, using the opportunity to grow stronger, pushing back against it all with the power of her fingers on the piano and later, lifting it up over her head with that most magnificent of human expressions, the soulful singing voice. . 

 

And what a voice! Not trained in the technical music schools, but shaped by the beauty and sorrows of life, she could sing tender in a song like Little Girl Blue, joyous in Feelin’ Good, loving in My Baby Just Cares For Me, determined inI Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free  and outraged and angry in her own song Mississippi Goddamn. This last song was a response to the 1963 bombing in a Birmingham Church that killed four innocent young girls. It was the first of many more songs to come in the cause of Civil Rights. 

 

But just as Hazel Scott was punished for speaking truth in the McCarthy hearings and had her TV show cancelled, Southern radio stations refused to play this song, some smashing the promotional records and sending the pieces back to her agent. Her honesty, ferocity and soulful presence was a threat to people who wanted to sweep injustice under the rug. And in a career that depended upon opportunities to perform, to have her music recorded and distributed and played on the radio, speaking truth was a big risk. And it hurt her. 

 

And yet here she is still, long after those vicious racists she fought against are gone and unremembered. Take a moment to listen. Take many moments to listen. And pass on her legacy.

 

Listening:Mississippi Goddamn (Nina singing and playing with a band)

https://youtu.be/LJ25-U3jNWM

 

Another version with relevant photos:

https://youtu.be/hBiAtwQZnHs

 

PS Take some time to read the comments below the videos. The listeners understand that this wasn’t a bad moment in our history, it was happening everywhere in all places (see Nat King Cole’s story in L.A.) and in all times (this year’s news with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the Capitol riots). Compare her bravery with the cowardice of elected Republican Senators refusing to speak out and convict Trump of inciting insurrection. 

 

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