This Historic Day In Music: Nina Simone

The 4th Annual Boston Globe Jazz Festival was held the weekend of January 31 and February 1, 1969. The festival’s venue was the War Memorial Auditorium in the Prudential Center on Boylston Street in downtown Boston, Massachusetts. (Tickets were $5.50, $4.50 and $3.50.)

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I attended the Saturday evening, February 1 performance with Alan, my friend and bandmate, and his father. It was my first Boston concert.

The 8 pm show featured trumpeter & vocalist Hugh Masekela; singer & pianist Nina Simone; Blues singer & electric guitarist B.B. King; and pianist & synthesizer player Sun Ra with his Arkestra.

Remarkably, I still have snapshot memories of all four performances. And even though Nina Simone is one of the two artists from that evening (the other is B.B. King) who had the biggest impact on me, I could not even begin to tell you what she played that night.

Until now.

Thanks to a bit of luck and the wonders of the internet, I found a review of the entire festival that had been published in the May 1, 1969 issue of Down Beat magazine. It was written by Alan Heineman, one of the magazine’s chief music critics at that time.

According to Mr. Heineman, Nina Simone and her band opened their set that February night with a slow but forceful reading of the Bob Dylan song, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” They carried on with a joyous performance of “In The Morning” (aka “The Morning of My Life”) by The Bee Gee’s, followed by another Dylan song, “I Shall Be Released.” Nina then kicked into a rousing medley of “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” from the Rock musical Hair and segued into her (not The Beatles’) “Revolution.” She closed the set with her superb interpretation of the Leonard Cohen song, “Suzanne.”

I recently discovered as well that Nina Simone had recorded her gorgeous rendition of “I Shall Be Released” just a few weeks prior to the Boston Globe Jazz Festival. On Wednesday, January 8, 1969, at RCA Studios in New York City, accompanied by a five-piece band and two background vocalists, Nina played piano and sang on this recording.

Listen.

 

(If you enjoyed that piece, let me recommend a CD: Just Like A Woman: Nina Simone Sings Classic Songs Of The ’60’s. This 2007 RCA/Legacy, Sony BMG collection includes “I Shall Be Released,” “In The Morning,” “Suzanne” and eleven other exemplary recordings.)

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933. She was the sixth child of Mary Kate and John Divine Waymon. Mary Kate was a Methodist minister and John was a handyman. They raised their family in the town of Tryon, North Carolina.

Eunice began learning to play the piano at the age of three. She made her concert debut at the age of twelve performing a recital of classical piano music. Throughout high school, Eunice aspired to become a concert pianist. After her graduation in 1950, she spent the summer at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. She then applied for a scholarship to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Despite a well-received audition, Eunice’s application was denied.

In 1954, Eunice took a gig at the Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She created a stage name, “Nina Simone,” (“Nina” is Spanish for “little girl” and “Simone” came from the French actress, Simone Signoret) because she didn’t want her mother to find out about her performances at the bar. Mary Kate would have considered the Jazz and Blues music that Eunice played and sang to be the “Devil’s Music.”

Nina Simone recorded her first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1958. Her forty-fifth and last album, A Single Woman, was released in 1993.

Nina Simone’s music was and always will be impossible to classify. She drew from Jazz, Blues, Classical, Gospel, Pop, Folk, Soul and Broadway show tunes. The only label she would allow was “Black Classical Music.” In 1997, she told a writer for Interview magazine: “My choices were intuitive and I had the technique to do it.” Ben Edmonds wrote in the liner notes to the CD mentioned above that whatever song Nina chose to sing, “Once done by her, it (became) simply a Nina Simone song.”

Nina Simone/Eunice Kathleen Waymon passed away on April 21, 2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, Bouches-du-Rhone, France.

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