Nina Simone (b. Eunice Kathleen Waymon; 1933) is beloved and remembered by millions across the world for her brilliant singing, incisive lyrics, and her fearlessness. But what isn’t always known is that she was also a formidable classical pianist with loads of technique, combining the subtlety, shading, and nuance that mark great piano players like Arthur Rubinstein and the late George Shearing.
It was Muriel Mazzanovich, a diminutive white Englishwoman married to a Russian painter, who was responsible for Eunice’s classical upbringing. Nina called her “Miss Mazzy.” She taught the young Eunice Waymon (not yet ten years old but noticeably talented) all the basics: how to sit at the piano; to play from the shoulders and not the wrists; and to comport herself onstage at a recital. But most importantly, she introduced Eunice to the glory of composer Johann Sebastian Bach, which Nina cherished all her life, and which kept her anchored during the more turbulent moments in her life, of which there were many.
Nina failed her audition at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Curtis was much more exclusive and admitted only a fraction of the students that Juilliard did. Eunice attributed this rejection to racism. I have attempted to find recordings of her Curtis audition from the early 1950s but to no avail. We will never know the truth.
Nina ended up instead at the Midtown Bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey, an Irish pub where she sang and played the piano. Not exactly the place to hear a classical pianist. Eunice decided to change her name to “Nina Simone” because it sounded better and because she didn’t want her pious, protective mother to know that she was singing in a bar. Nina had only a one octave range that she compensated for with her perfect pitch. A year later, at age twenty-five, she recorded her first album for Bethlehem Records and quickly rose to fame.
Nina was bi-polar before anyone knew what the term meant. At times, she could be either a sobbing little girl blue or a human tempest. I discovered this during two separate KCRW interviews: one with Nina on meds (sad, docile and breaking down in studio); another with her off meds, furious and delusional, demanding, “I’m a descendent of female pharoahs!!!!” Referring to herself as “Dr. Simone” in the third person, she knocked producer Ariana Morgenstern’s car door off its hinges, yelled at staff member Nan Sheri Lieberman after requisitioning a studio camera, and terrorized the Santa Monica College’s parking lot attendant, demanding that our Yamaha grand be delivered immediately to her apartment so that she could rehearse for an upcoming concert.
Yet when Nina sat down at the keyboard, there she was again with Miss Mazzy sitting beside and calming her, the counterpoint helping to reorganize her jangled brain chemistry. And when she played “Little Girl Blue,” you could hear her love of Bach and his perpetual magic. And feel the presence of Muriel Mazzanovich.