Category Archives: Nina Simone

Women’s History Month: Nina Simone’s “Four Women”

nina-1024x512

Lately, between Andresmusictalk and my own blog Dystopian Dance Party, I feel like I’ve been writing a lot about Nina Simone. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Simone is one of my all-time favorite artists: a bold and daring a performer who nevertheless carried herself with an imperious dignity that earned her the title “High Priestess of Soul.” And, especially in the late 1960s, her voice as a radical Black woman made vital contributions to the very culture that marginalized her.

Take, for example, her 1966 song “Four Women,” an emotional portrait of the manifold ways African American women have been oppressed throughout history. Over an ominous blues piano line, Simone lends subjectivity to four archetypal figures: the dark-skinned slave “Aunt Sarah,” the mulatto “Safronia,” the Jezebel/prostitute “Sweet Thing,” and finally the embittered militant “Peaches.” With her last verse, she declares that the rage at the heart of the Black Civil Rights movement is both inevitable and justified by the indignities of the past; “I’m awfully bitter these days,” she admits, “because my parents were slaves.” And in inhabiting these figures–widely perceived as negative, racist stereotypes–she gives them a sense of humanity and empathy that could not be found in the women’s movement of the time.

The place of Black women in feminism has of course been contested since the days of Sojourner Truth; it remains, unfortunately, an ongoing struggle, seen most recently in debates leading up to this January’s Women’s March on Washington. But with songs like “Four Women,” Nina Simone ensured that the uniqueness of Black women’s experiences were expressed, whether “mainstream” feminism chose to acknowledge them or not. And her music continues to resonate–as evidenced by the above cover version, performed by the Berklee College of Music chapter of Black Lives Matter. It is, as ever, sad that a song written about the plight of Black women in 1966 could remain so necessary over 50 years later; things being as they are, however, at least now we can be glad it exists.

Remember to check out Dystopian Dance Party next week for five more days of music by great women artists! See you soon.

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Filed under Berklee College Of Music, Black History, Black Lives Matter, black power, Blues, Nina Simone, pro black, vocal jazz, Women

Nina Simone – Young, Gifted, and Black

nina-superjumbo

Monday would have been Nina Simones 84th birthday; and, while Andre already did an excellent job of commemorating the occasion, I thought I’d pitch in with this review of some reissues I wrote way back in 2006 (!). Incidentally, one of the albums, Nina Simone Sings the Blues, was remastered late last year by the Vinyl Me, Please record of the month club; if you’re a member, you can still pick it up.

Over the course of her almost 50-year performing career, Nina Simone was many things to many different people. She was the husky-voiced blues goddess of “See Line Woman” and “Feeling Good”; the fearless Civil Rights crusader of “Old Jim Crow” and “Mississippi Goddam”; the sophisticated “High Priestess of Soul” who gave her definitive 1966 album its name. That is precisely why the essence of Simone is so difficult to capture on a single disc: to try and boil down a career as long, as varied, as singularly eclectic as hers into just a handful of iconic moments is an exercise in futility.

Thankfully, the compilers of a recent set of reissues understand that fact. Playing to just three of Simone’s many strengths, they wisely highlight each with a disc of its own: Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul, both originally released in 1967, cover their self-explanatory genres with the comfortable ease of a woman who had been blending them for years; while Forever Young, Gifted & Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit compiles politically-minded highlights and rarities from the late ’60s. Granted, some might argue that these releases are inherently flawed, hailing as they do from the singer’s less renowned tenure at RCA rather than her two trailblazing years with Phillips. But if listening to this music with fresh ears proves anything, it’s that there’s a timelessness to all of Simone’s work, which no amount of critical grumpiness could ever erase.

© Legacy Recordings

© Legacy Recordings

As a matter of fact, these albums work a hell of a lot better than they have any right to. The track listing to Forever Young, Gifted & Blacks may read at first glance like a senseless grab bag of Civil Rights Nina: a single here, an alternate take there, a smattering of live cuts to fill the gaps. But the music within is never less than interesting, and often revelatory. Three excerpts from Simone’s performance at the Westbury Music Fair on April 7, 1968, a mere three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, are the obvious highlights: a performance so charged that the stage banter by a shell-shocked, emotional Simone rivals the music for intensity. “Do you realize how many we have lost?” she asks before the rousing final chorus of “Why? (The King of Love is Dead),” a tribute to Dr. King originally released in edited form on Simone’s live album ‘Nuff Said!, here expanded to its full thirteen minutes. “They’re shooting us down one by one.” Next, she invokes the Birmingham Four and launches into an incendiary rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” that threatens to leave its better-known counterpart (from 1964’s Nina Simone in Concert) in the dust. “The King of Love is dead! I ain’t ’bout to be non-violent, honey!” she exclaims before the last verse, demonstrating in just thirteen words the miles of difference four years can make in the national consciousness.

The Westbury tracks are indeed something of a double-edged sword for the compilation: they leave one salivating over the prospect of a full-length release for that concert, while making the rest of the CD we do have look rather hodge-podge by comparison. But Forever Young, Gifted & Black still manages to hold together as an enjoyable listening experience. The Lorraine Hansberry-quoting title track, a vibrant collision of gospel exultation and pomp reverence, remains one of Simone’s most immediate anthems, while the alternate versions of the Byrds’ “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and Simone’s medley of “Ain’t Got No” and “I Got Life” from the musical Hair are both more intimate and more rollicking than their previously-released forebears. Finally, the collection is rounded out by a handful of album cuts: two live from New York City’s Philharmonic Hall in 1969 (already made available on 1970’s Black Gold), two from 1969’s To Love Somebody, and one from Silk & Soul. Although I can’t help but wonder why these tracks weren’t passed over in favor of more rare material, they’re all hits rather than misses; and with a specially-commissioned new poem by Nikki Giovanni adorning the inner sleeve, who really has the heart to quibble?

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

In many ways more compelling than the collection, however, are the reissues of Sings the Blues and Silk & Soul: not just Simone’s two greatest albums for RCA, but, in the case of Sings the Blues, her single most successful excursion into the “raw” side of her music–and as we all know, Nina was about as raw as a Juilliard graduate could get. Though it may not contain anything quite as gritty as 1965’s neo-work song “Be My Husband,” Sings the Blues’ smoky juke-joint confessionals stand comfortably with Simone’s best work. It’s also a more expansive album than its name implies, containing everything from frank expressions of female sexuality like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,” “Buck,” and “Do I Move You,” to a railing anti-racism anthem co-written by Langston Hughes (“Backlash Blues”), to a Gershwin cover (“My Man’s Gone Now”) and a version of “House of the Rising Sun” performed in the style of “Sinnerman.” The bonus tracks are few but worthy, and Sid McCoy’s weedy original liner notes, reproduced here, are also worth a laugh or two: “‘Sugar in My Bowl’ is one of those suggestive tunes successfully employing double entendre,” he explains.

© RCA Records

© RCA Records

Meanwhile, “It Be’s That Way Sometime” kicks off Silk & Soul in a funky, if somewhat mannered mode; the result, as Simone’s powerful vocals struggle for dominance with her lite-soul backing, is inspired, creating a tension that lasts throughout the whole record. Thus fiery, gospel-tinged “soul” like “Go to Hell” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” rubs shoulders with the “silk” of contemporary cocktail-pop standards “Cherish” and “The Look of Love,” and somehow she manages to pull it all off with equal skill. Throw in a few lesser-known bonus tracks (one of which, “Save Me,” carries a co-writing credit by one Aretha Franklin), and this trio of Nina Simone reissues has its third consecutive success.

There is, of course, more to the Nina Simone story than even these fine discs can tell; if her career remains impossible to encapsulate in just one CD, it’s hardly any easier to contain with three. Yet Sings the Blues, Silk & Soul, and Forever Young, Gifted and Black remain concise statements of three of Simone’s most appealing sides: the reincarnated blueswoman, the crafter and interpreter of soulful pop melodies, the poet of the African American experience. If there’s any chance that these CDs could bring a deeper understanding of Nina Simone to a new generation of listeners, then a better means to that end could hardly be imagined.

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Filed under 1960's, Aretha Franklin, Blues, civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, people music, Soul, soul jazz

Anatomy of THE Groove: “The Family” by Nina Simone

Nina Simone’s personal biography is a long and complicated one. She was for sure one of the most complex female personalities of black American music in the mid to late 20th century. She was also one of the major innovators of what I refer to as “people music”-utilizing the jazz,blues,soul and funk spectrum of music to speak directly to the ideas of civil rights and black power. A journey from “Mississippi Goddamn” to a move to Liberia (the African nation founded by former American slaves) in a decades time showcases the complex arc of life had by North Carolina native Eunice Kathleen Waymon.

After the mid 70’s,Simone took a hiatus from recording. Though she continued performing,the quality of her shows continued to be extremely erratic. A lot of this could be attributed to the mental illness she learned of in the late 80’s-along with family/marriage discord. During a particularly rough spot in her life living in Brussels,she recorded the album Baltimore on Creed Taylor’s CTI label. She bemoaned having little creative input in the project-such as writing and arrangement. Yet it did produced one of her strongest grooves in a song entitled “The Family”.

Jim Madison’s four beat drum hit,Gary King’s scaling up bass line and the crying guitar of Eric Gale open up the song with the CTI string section for a heavy bluesy vibe. Nina accompanies her vocal lead with a like minded piano as the refrain builds back into itself. The horns,strings,guitar and Nina’s piano all provide alternating call and response bars of melody to each other-including the backup vocals on the choruses that bring in a more funky,danceable rhythm. After Gale takes an extended guitar solo on the bridge,that call and response refrain/chorus extends itself for the remainder of the song until it fades.

Written by John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins ,”The Family” actually reminds me of exactly the type of song that suited Nina Simone in the late 70’s environment. It possessed the down home bluesy jazz/funk sound of the Crusaders with the orchestral elements that CTI brought in. The gospel vibe of the lyrics,plus Simone’s curtly soulful delivery of them,add to the tale of poverty and the conditions it can bring upon human beings can negatively impact on family relations. It was a fine example of Nina Simone in a studio setting during a time that may not have been personally good for her. But still creatively potent.

 

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The Continuing Resonance of “Mississippi Goddam”

For reasons that should be obvious–and sort of rhyme with the words “Dump Conflagration”–I’ve been spending a lot of time this week thinking about protest music. And surprisingly, one of the songs that feels most relevant to our current (terrible) political situation is one that was written over 50 years ago, about a different (and even more terrible) political situation: Nina Simone‘s “Mississippi Goddam.”

It’s a testament to Simone’s brilliance as a songwriter and a performer–or maybe just to the world’s staggering shittiness–that a protest song as historically specific as “Mississippi Goddam” could have such long-lasting resonance. Simone wrote the song in early 1964, in response to two events from the previous year: the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Edvers in Jackson, Mississippi, and the fatal bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. But despite its ripped-from-the-headlines inspiration, she continued to perform “Mississippi Goddam” throughout her life, using its righteous rage as a vessel to contain whatever new disaster had struck Black America in the interim.

My favorite version of the song, for example, comes from April 1968, just three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: an event, Simone tells the crowd, that “left me so numb, I don’t know where I’m at.” It’s a stirring version of the song, its middle section more devastating than ever: “Hound dogs on my trail / Little school children sitting in jail / Black cat crossed my path / I think every day’s gonna be my last / Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We all gonna get it in due time / ‘Cause I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” As historically specific as the performance remains, its sense of hopelessness leapt out at me across the decades when I listened to it again this week. It’s hard not to detect a little of our present situation in the lines where Simone rages against the admonitions of moderate white liberals: “Don’t tell me / I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I’ve been there so I know / They keep on saying ‘Go slow!'”

mississippi_goddamBut if the rage Simone felt in 1964 and 1968 still feels relevant to 2017, then so, too, does the galvanizing purpose behind the song–which is the real reason why I found myself listening to it so much this week. “Mississippi Goddam” is about the terrible things that happen to marginalized people, but it’s also about standing up and demanding justice for those terrible things: not later, but now. Yesterday and today, reports of anti-inauguration protests, counter-events, and of course the Women’s March on Washington were the only things in the world that felt right, that made any sense at all. And, while I don’t know if the legendarily acerbic Ms. Simone would have been part of the Women’s March–though I will go out on a limb and say she wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing no damn pussy hat–I do think she would have approved of the many people taking to the streets. It’s going to be a long four years (Christ, I hope it’s only four years); but if we keep fighting like what I saw this weekend, I think we might be all right.

(This post is an expanded version of a blurb I wrote for my own blog. Come read my thoughts about 15 other songs of dissent on Dystopian Dance Party.)

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Filed under 1960's, civil rights, Donald Trump, Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, political songs, protest songs

“Nina” and “Miles Ahead” – Flawed but fascinating – Improvisations

Nina & MilesMiles Ahead/Nina: Flawed but Fascinating

Improvisations

By Ron Wynn

After recently seeing Cynthia Mort’s “Nina” a few weeks in advance of viewing Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead,” both seem to me flawed but fascinating. Each has a magnetic lead performance, neither attempts to provide the kind of substantive portrait that a documentarian would seek, and depending on your agenda, you can find them satisfactory, decent or atrocities. That there have been folks who’ve devoted lots of words and space while differing in their assessments is another indicator of just how difficult the whole biopic field has become.

Mort’s “Nina” was embroiled in controversy almost from the beginning, in large part due to the casting of A-list actress Zoe Saldana to portray the dynamic, often controversial NIna Simone. Charges of “colorism” were launched, and those cries became even louder when word surfaced about the alleged use of skin darkening makeup and a fake nose to enhance the facial contrast between Saldana and Simone. Add the presence of another international star in David Oyewolo to portray her manager Clifton Henderson, and many critics branded this little more than stunt casting designed to get Hollywood backing and major market circulation.

Mort’s response did validate, to a degree, the casting charges. She acknowledged that there were others considered for the role (though she wouldn’t list their names) and also said Saldana initially turned down the part, returning only because she truly wanted the film made. But the bottom line on “Nina” is that it is a far better film than some claimed. Saldana does a marvelous job of communicating Simone’s very complicated, mercurial personality, though it only skims the surface as far as truly documenting her artistic versatility. However it does spotlight her integrity and determination to do the music she cared about rather than what would be the most commercial, and it also highlights a fierce dignity, cultural awareness and solidarity that were unquestionably at the core of her music.

What “Nina” isn’t, and this is the implicit weakness in any biopic, is an exhaustive cinematic summation of Simone’s career, a breakdown of what made her unique and distinctive as a stylist, or a thorough recitation of all her career highlights. Folks who look to Hollywood productions for that kind of detail will always be disappointed, and “Nina” is no different. It has to condense and take shortcuts, and sometimes the juggling of exact and reworked for creative impact details tend to blur to the point that no one should take for granted that everything they see her actually happened. Netflix’s Oscar-nominated Simone documentary would be the place to go for those who want a comprehensive look at Nina Simone. As a work of dramatic intensity with some biographical elements, “Nina” succeeds despite its weaknesses.

If the evaluation is based wholly on acting skill and storytelling impact, then Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” also can be deemed a success. It was understandable that with a career as majestic, extensive and varied as Miles Davis, no biopic that was only in the two-three hour range could fully do it justice. Plus Cheadle announced from the very beginning he had no desire to even attempt some kind of career-spanning epic. So, despite learning to play the trumpet to ensure accuracy, Cheadle instead opted for a work that focused on Miles Davis off the bandstand, while still giving you glimpses of what made him such a star on it.

You do see in the various “gangster” episodes of Miles Davis the things that also came through in his music. These include an adventurous spirit, a desire to never do what’s expected, a character who could be obsessively selfish one minute and remarkably kind the next, and someone who never felt they were treated the way that they should have been by those in positions of power, whether they be music executives or police officers.

As a lifelong Miles Davis fan and someone well versed in his various adventures, musical and otherwise, Cheadle’s portrayal was quite credible in many ways. But where “Miles Ahead” didn’t quite click was in communicating the greatness of his music, which since it didn’t set out to do that anyhow, is probably an unfair criticism. Only in the jam session portion at the end does some of the wonderful energy and vitality that was in all Miles’ great music come across on screen, and then it’s as much due to the assembled group as to anything else coming from the film.

The standard Hollywood biopic will never really satisfy the hardcore music fan, because they are about exaggerated personality and dramatic conflict first and foremost. Even those that do come close to also revealing what made the central character so important like “Ray” or “Get On Up” still have to focus more on things that will hook audience members who are casual listeners or in many instances totally unfamiliar with the music of the person being profiled, especially if we’re talking about non-rock or pop musicians. It is unrealistic at this point to expect the sort of adherence to fact and concern about technique and artistic evolution in a Hollywood biopic that you’d routinely demand from something on even the History Channel, let alone a stand-alone documentary.

Thus, in terms of the job that they were required to fufill, both “Nina” and “Miles Ahead” are basically serviceable works considerably elevated by outstanding lead performances, and augmented with some scenes from key moments in both performers’ lives that everyone should know. Given the general state of 21st century cinema, that qualifies as the best one can expect when commercial studios are in charge of any production.

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Filed under 2016, biopics, David Oyelowo, Don Cheadle, Ewan McGregor, indie movies, jazz history, Miles Ahead, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Ron Wynn, Zoe Saldana