“I’m finally in Carnegie Hall, but I’m not playing Bach.”
Nina Simone penned this line to her parents in 1964, referencing what would become one of her iconic performances at the famed music hall. At the time, Simone was enjoying burgeoning success and recognition as a jazz vocalist and pianist, and the Carnegie gig was built upon her recording several years previous of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” from the composer’s seminal opera “Porgy & Bess”.
By the time she took the stage at Carnegie and wrote the rueful note to her parents, Simone was already a league away from her performance roots in classical piano, something her parents recognized and supported when Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in North Carolina during the Great Depression, began playing before she was 4 years old.
Young Eunice approached playing with the hunger and dedication of someone who’d discovered what she was made to do. In her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, she noted that Bach “is technically perfect… Each note you play is connected to the next note, and every note has to be executed perfectly or the whole effect is lost. Once I understood Bach’s music I never wanted to be anything other than a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music.”
Nina Simone circa 1970: Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Nothing sums up Simone more than her own musings on her connection to Bach’s musical perfection. Simone, whom many know primarily because of her honey-thick, raw contralto vocals, rich with emotion and depth, primarily viewed her career in jazz and pop music as a way to support her classical music studies, including attending Julliard in the 1950s.
Many fans of Simone appreciate her for those soulful vocals and for her literal and figurative voice in the 1960s Civil Rights movement. The woman she became started during her first public piano performance, in her father’s church, when she was 12 years old. Her proud parents had taken front-row seats until they were forced backwards as white patrons poured in to attend.
Eunice Kathleen flat out refused to play until her parents were moved back to their original seats, front and center. Simone (who originally changed her name so her family, especially her reverend father, wouldn’t discover she was playing and singing “the devil’s music”) was both a musical and literal force to be reckoned with. She eventually found her place and her own peace within the American jazz community as it dovetailed with African American rights, but her passion and desire to play the piano, unfettered by others’ perception of her, remained.
We will leave you with this 1987 performance of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” a jazz standard many think of when we think of her, in Montreux, Switzerland. She abandoned her full band and played an elaborate fugal accompaniment on piano, perfectly blending her lifelong training with her luscious jazz vocals
Bach would approve – and perhaps, be impressed.