Back during the Sundance Film Festival, there was a big buzz about filmmaker Liz Garbus’s new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone, which screens this Thursday, June 25, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), followed by a Q&A. If you can’t make it, it will also be released on Netflix this Friday, June 26. I guested on Morning Becomes Eclectic afterwards to talk about this exceptional artist and her legacy.
I feel like I know a thing or two about her: I’ve listened to her music all my adult life; read and interviewed Nadine Cohodas, author of Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone; and even interviewed Nina twice on Morning Becomes Eclectic.
After reading Rebecca Keegan’s cover article, “What Fueled Nina Simone’s Creative Fire,” in Sunday’s LA Times Calendar section, I have to say that I am surprised that Zoe Saldana has been chosen to portray Nina in a forthcoming biopic. It reminds me of when only “high yellow,” “sepia,” or light-skinned black people got the best jobs: Lena Horne, Eartha Kitt, and Dorothy Dandridge are examples.
Nina was beautiful because of her blackness, her full lips, broad nose and powerful brow. Her features were African, and she exuded an African sort of strength. Saldana is a respected actress, but is she really the best actress to play Nina?
Nina Simone (b. Eunice Kathleen Waymon; 1933) was mentored by a little sparrow of a Englishwoman, Muriel Massanova, whom Nina referred to as her “white mother.” Muriel taught young Eunice everything: the classical repertoire, etiquette, technique, and stage presence. Nina learned to love Bach, which you can hear on “Little Girl Blue” and many other songs. Although Nina was a formidable pianist, there are few recorded instrumental solos: a good example, however, being “Under the Lowest” from her 1959 Town Hall recording.
Nina was forever bitter after being turned down by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which she always blamed on racism. Although Nina spent her final year of high school studying at Juilliard in preparation for her audition at Curtis, the Philadelphia school was a smaller, far more exclusive music temple than Juilliard. And any applicant who was accepted received a full scholarship, something that young artists of modest means like Nina badly needed. I found out that Curtis only admitted something like three out of 100 applicants in the early 1950s when Nina auditioned. Was racism the reason why she was rejected? Could it be that she just didn’t make the cut? If only there were records of her audition performance—I tried to find out but couldn’t. We probably will never know.
When I interviewed Nadine Cohodas, author of the definitive biography, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, in 2010, she told me that there were other African-Americans who had been admitted to the prestigious institution at the time. Could they have been better trained and prepared, or just had better auditions? Cohodas’s biography is a great way to find out what made Nina Simone the artist we know today.
Nina, however, had felt the sting of racism before Curtis in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina: in the Jim Crow South. When she had her first formal classical piano recital in 1945, her parents were asked to give up their seats in the first row to make room for a white couple. Nina was 12 at the time and refused to play, saying she needed to see her parents in the first row. The switch was made, and the recital proceeded.
Dashed of her dreams of classical training at Curtis, Nina instead wound up singing at an Irish bar in New Jersey. She changed her name to the French-sounding Nina Simone, not because it sounded better than her birth name, but because she didn’t want her parents or Miss Mazzy to find out she was there.
Before my first interview with Nina, some guy called me with a disturbing personal anecdote. I was already a little nervous, so this didn’t help. I also knew that once she had gone to RCA Records in New York, sat down before an executive she’d called a meeting with, pulled out a revolver that she placed on his desk and said, “I’m here to discuss my royalties.” In a later incident, she stormed into Chanel’s office in Paris after the perfume manufacturer used “My Baby Just Cares for Me” in a commercial.
I ask: If Eunice Waymon had been accepted at Curtis and had gone on to become a classical pianist, would she have lost the anger burning inside that made her so iconic? Would she have felt less betrayed by racism? It wasn’t until a decade later that another African-American classical pianist, André Watts (b. 1946; Nina was born in 1933) became successful. Would her bi-polar disorder have affected a classical career as well? Finally, would she have become as iconic a figure in the classical world? And would classical music have given her a platform to protest racism during the Civil Rights era of the turbulent 1960s?
I remember that when she came into KCRW for the first time, she was a “Little Girl Blue” on meds. But the second time, off her meds, she was pretty intimidating. During the 1980s and before, there was little understanding of bi-polar and other mental disorders, including Nina’s and medications were not as effective as today.
Nina, throughout her career—which she abandoned more than once—demanded over $100k per performance. Somehow I doubt she would have ever been as successful or received such a fee had she remained Eunice Waymon. Whatever the case may be, I love her music as much as anybody, and am happy a good documentary is here to honor and celebrate her.
Following her death in 2003, I did a tribute to Nina that includes my Morning Becomes Eclectic interview segments with her, which you can listen to here.
Watch the trailer for Liz Garbus’s documentary, “What Happened, Miss Nina Simone,” which hits theaters on Wednesday, June 24, and will be released on Netflix this Friday, June 26.