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Friday, February 19, 2010

Clark Dark's Black History Month Entertainment Spotlight: Nina Simone America's Classical Music Diva

"There's no other purpose, so far as I'm concerned, for us except to reflect the times, the situations around us and the things we're able to say through our art, the things that millions of people can't say. I think that's the function of an artist and, of course, those of us who are lucky leave a legacy so that when we're dead, we also live on. That's people like Billie Holiday and I hope that I will be that lucky, but meanwhile, the function, so far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times, whatever that might be" Nina Simone to Phyl Garland in a 1969 interview
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Nina Simone, nee Eunice Kathleen Waymon (1933-2003), was a musical child prodigy who was born in North Carolina at a time when being black in America was perceived by some as a hindrance to living a successful life of opportunity and equality. She was able to play the piano with great technique and natural style. It was her desire to become a successful classical pianist who performed piano pieces and concertos composed by the greats Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin and Liszt with renowned orchestras in concert halls around the world.

At the age of three Simone began playing the piano; the first song she learned was a Protestant hymn "God be With You, Till we Meet Again". She continued to play at her local church, her mother was an ordained Methodist minister and her father was a barber. She displayed a natural talent for playing the piano. Members of the community in Tryon, North Carolina provided support for her to take lessons at which she excelled. In return for their support she agreed to play public annual recitals at the local town hall.

Making her concert debut, at the age of twelve, Simone performed a classical piano recital. In two different books about her life Simone recalled during this performance, her parents, who had taken seats in the front row, were forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for white people. Simone reported she refused to play until her parents were moved back to the front. Nina Simone says this incident, as well as her rejection, because of her color, by the Curtis School Of Music in Philadelphia, contributed to her later involvement in the civil rights movement.

Simone's parents, had relocated to Philadelphia. and she was not to be deterred from attaining her goal of playing music. Simone accompanied singers and taught piano lessons to raise money to fund her own piano studies at the Juilliard School in New York City.

It was during this period she learned one of her piano students was playing in bars in Atlantic City, New Jersey earning more than she from teaching piano.

In 1954 with an eclectic repertoire, a stage name derived from combining a nickname given her by a former boyfriend and the name of French actress Simone Signoret-who she'd seen in the film "Casque d'Or", she began to use the name "Nina Simone" to hide from her mother's conservative religious disapproval of singing nightclubs.

The owner of the Midtown Bar & Grill on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, New Jersey required Simone provide vocals in her performance in order she get the job.

And so she sang as well as played music from genres such as classical, jazz, pop, blues and Broadway. She developed a following of younger people who were fascinated by her style and musical expression. The year was 1957 the launch of an iconic musical recording career and a life of social activism that spanned nearly fifty years.

Continued in Part 2...


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