Nadine Cohodas had just completed a book on jazz singer Dinah Washington when another compelling story took hold. It wasn’t just the late Nina Simone’s musical niche that grabbed her — the combination of classical training grafted into jazz, world and pop music — it was the civil rights activist who could not, would not keep silent. “Nina was nine years younger than Dinah, a different generation in terms of what was going on in the country,” the author explains. “Her life and music felt like the next step to look at the intersection of race and culture.”
This month marks the release of Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (Pantheon Books). Cohodas made three trips to Tryon, North Carolina, where Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933. “I had to try to understand what the life of Eunice Waymon was like, what the rhythms of Tryon were like,” she says. “And that part was rich and wonderful, finding people who went to school with her, and finding that her father was one of the founding officers of the Polk County NAACP chapter. Two of her older brothers were so helpful, with hand-drawn maps of what Tryon looked like when she was a child.”
Eunice attended Tryon Colored School and showed musical ability from an early age, studying classical piano with a teacher in town, Mrs. Muriel Massinovitch (“Miz Mazzy”). Though relations between the races could be cordial, segregation did exist, and an incident when her parents were asked to give up their seats for a white couple at a piano recital when she was young has been cited as a catalyst for Simone’s later civil rights activism. “The second-class citizenship of black Americans in this period of time is absolutely important and central to everyone’s identity on either side of the color line,” the author says.
“I think that as she got older, Tryon for Nina became a symbol of her feelings of the oppression that exists in the world in general, and some of what she felt in her own life,” Cohodas observes. “Her disappointment, first professionally when she wanted to be a classical pianist and was rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music. And then with the reception of her music here and there. The reason I use the word ‘symbol’ is that her older siblings had a different perspective in their memories of their childhood. But let me say this too — what Nina felt is what Nina felt. And you cannot argue with what someone felt. That is a part of mystery. But these feelings of disappointment and anger certainly fueled the music, and I think that that is what makes it so compelling.”
In 1948 she attended the Allen Home School for Girls in Asheville, where she flourished musically and academically, graduating as valedictorian. She had become a fan of Hazel Scott, another pianist/vocalist who was not afraid to speak her mind. “Here was someone who could do classical stuff and then be Hazel Scott in a nightclub,” Cohodas notes. “She kept pictures of Hazel Scott on the wall in her room at the Allen School. She said that jazz is just a word used to pigeonhole black performers. She identified more with Marian Anderson and Maria Callas. She liked Bob Dylan, and would always pay homage to Frank Sinatra.”
After attending Julliard School of Music for a year, Eunice Waymon began playing at the Midtown Bar in Atlantic City in 1954. Not wanting her mother, a strict Methodist minister, to know that she was performing “the devil’s music,” she began using the stage name Nina Simone. “Just about everybody of that certain era came out of the church, so there was always that tension,” Cohodas says.
Simone scored hits with “I Love You, Porgy” and “My Baby Just Cares For Me.” But her moral outrage grew as racism flared in America. After a church was bombed in Birmingham and Medgar Evers was shot and killed in 1963, she wrote “Mississippi Goddam.” “This is the moment when Nina Simone becomes the Nina Simone that we know, and it is quite a song,” says Cohodas. “Her 1980 version at the Montreal Jazz Festival is quite something, when she alternates between French and English in the chorus. I also think ‘Four Women’ is absolutely a masterpiece. The amount of information that is in those four stanzas, and the muscular language, ‘My skin is black, my arms are strong.’ Aunt Sarah, the mammy, and Saffronia the mulatto, Sweet Thing, and then she ends ‘My name is Peaches.’ I just think that’s a magnificent song. It’s a history lesson in four stanzas. I live in Washington, so I could go to the Library of Congress and request from the vaults the live versions from the Newport Jazz Festival. It’s just interesting when Nina talks with the audience about what was in her mind when she wrote the song.”
The singer openly mocked segregation laws in her song “Old Jim Crow,” and in 1969 wrote the civil rights anthem “Young Gifted and Black” with Weldon Irvine as a tribute to her longtime friend, playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
Nina Simone spent the last 30 years of her life living abroad, returning only rarely to the country of her birth for a concert or visit. The High Priestess of Soul was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts Degrees by Malcolm X College and the University of Massachusetts. She performed a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in 2001, after which promoter George Wein told the author, “She became a goddess of culture.” Nina Simone died at her home in the South of France on April 21, 2003. “Her identity as a proud black woman was so central to the music she made and the message that she wove through her creations,” says Cohodas. “All of that made this an interesting, if complicated, story to try to tell.”