Let’s say you have a daughter named Adele, and she is one of the most celebrated young singers in the world. Reporters ask you about her musical education, and you tell them that you raised her right, exposing her early to the work of four musicians: Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, and Nina Simone.
What would you be saying, in essence, when you listed those four artists together, as the father of Adele, the phenomenally successful young English R&B singer, did a few weeks ago? The first three names have been established for years as code terms for musical genius; they only secondarily refer now to actual people who have made music over the past hundred years. But what of the fourth—Nina Simone? It would probably not seem odd to anyone who knows about Adele to hear Simone’s name tossed off along with those of such canonical figures as Armstrong, Fitzgerald, and Dylan. Yet Simone’s elevated status today would probably come as a surprise to many of those who know her only by the reputation she had in her own lifetime. In less than ten years, since her death at age seventy in 2003, the image of Simone in the public consciousness has come to dwarf her standing in life. Name-checking Nina Simone isn’t a nod to history; it’s a claim to being tuned in to the buzz. Simone is now more trendy than Adele.
While music labels fold or consolidate, backlists shrink, and music by artists of the past becomes harder to come by (at least legally), Simone keeps selling. As of this summer, iTunes lists more than 115 Simone albums for sale by downloading—and she made only about forty albums while she was alive, from her first LP, recorded in 1957, to her final studio album, made in 1993. In the last three years, almost two dozen re-issues or new compilations of Simone material have been released, including at least six titles this year alone. Simone’s music has been sampled by dozens of contemporary artists, including Talib Kweli and Kanye West. Two rising jazz singers, Kellylee Evans and Kim Nalley, have recently staged tribute shows in Simone’s honor, as has Simone’s only child, the former Lisa Stroud, who now goes by the single name Simone. Mary J. Blige has been signed to portray Simone (the elder) in a planned film of her life, and countless performers from Peter Gabriel to Christina Aguilera have cited Simone as an important influence. Earlier this year, a pair of fashion retailers opened a boutique on Rodeo Drive and called it Nina Chanel for two of their idols, Simone and Coco. The store name also conjures a TV commercial for Chanel No. 5, which used as its music track Simone’s recording of “My Baby Just Cares for Me” and helped make the re-issued single of the song the biggest hit Simone ever had, thirty years after it had been recorded.
Why Nina Simone, of all singers of the past fifty years, and why now? As someone who still marvels at Simone’s singular, uncompromising music, I am disposed to think of the Rise of Nina as vindication of work whose unorthodoxy and difficulty take some time to absorb. The high quality of her art has, over months and years, pulled her reputation upward. At the same time, it takes more than musical value for an artist to become the inspiration for a shop on Rodeo Drive; and no Hollywood producers are developing biopics about Helen Merrill or Carmen McRae, great and important singers from Simone’s time whose work feels much more of its moment than hers does. There are extra-musical goings-on in the story of Simone’s prominence, and the topic of fashion is hardly irrelevant. After all, cultural standing is elementally a kind of voguishness. The ways in which Simone was great and important, in their particulars, speak to the experience of the contemporary audience even more cogently than they spoke to the public of her prime.
LIKE DYLAN, who made his first album only four years after she recorded hers, Simone was an artist of rare and consistent distinctiveness who took up multiple styles over the course of her career to suit her changing purposes. A piano prodigy, formally trained from early childhood, she studied at the Juilliard summer program as a young woman and planned originally to become a concert musician. When she was not accepted to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, she took the news as a betrayal of literally cosmic dimensions. “When I was rejected by the Curtis Institute, it was as if all the promises ever made to me by God, my family and my community were broken and I had been lied to all my life,” she wrote in her memoir, I Put a Spell on You, co-written with the journalist Stephen Cleary and published in 1991.
Carrying on with sublimated resentment, Simone took work as a bar pianist in a joint in Atlantic City, and started learning how to marry musical rigor and entertainment value, while also learning the songbook of popular standards she had never before had much interest in performing. Simone found herself expected to sing as well as play the piano, much as the keyboard virtuosos Nat Cole and Barbara Carroll had been coerced to sing or lose their jobs. All three cases, in retrospect, justified the coercion.
Simone developed an approach to music that drew overtly, but not overwhelmingly, from her classical background. Her attack was quick and precise, though it got spongier over time, and her conception of harmony gravitated to the baroque, especially on her first couple of albums, recorded in the late 1950s. She tended to shy from the chromatic. Today, as a consequence, her music feels companionable to young listeners who have grown up on post-chromatic pop. “Bach made me dedicate my life to music,” she once said, and she often played as if dedicated to Bach.
In a showpiece on her first LP, her reinvention of “Little Girl Blue,” Simone employed a tricky musical form, the quodlibet, singing the melody by Richard Rodgers and the words by Lorenz Hart to the piano accompaniment of the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” The idea was showy, gimmicky, and puzzling: what did Christmas have to do with “Little Girl Blue,” a melancholy lament that Rodgers and Hart wrote for the circus musical Jumbo? Yet Simone put the piece over, through the unaffected poise of her playing and the soft ache in her reading of Hart’s doleful lyrics.
Her first record company, Bethlehem, made a minor specialty of presenting urbane female singers such as Chris Connor, Julie London, and Simone. For her debut as a recording artist, the label came up with the title—yes, this really was the title of the album—Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club. (In later editions, the album was re-titled for its odd highlight, “Little Girl Blue,” although another track from the record, “I Love You, Porgy”—the grammar of Gershwin’s original title cleaned up by Simone, following Billie Holiday’s example, as a matter of racial pride—was released as a single and made it onto the Billboard Top 40 as Simone’s first hit.) Verbosity aside, the album’s title astutely packaged Simone’s out-of-the-way style as something for refined tastes.
At the time, there was a faddish strain of jazz with classical leanings—the Third Stream music of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Bob Brookmeyer, and Jimmy Giuffre, who had performed his arty “The Train and the River” on national TV the year Simone started recording. But Simone’s music was gutsier, simpler, and less self-consciously cerebral—less impressive, because it was less concerned with impressiveness, and more human, more moving, than most music of the Third Stream. It was not really “jazz as played” in any club other than the Village Gate on the nights when Simone performed. Although she established herself by playing the typical jazz musician’s repertoire of song standards (“Bye, Bye Blackbird,” “Just in Time,” “Willow Weep for Me”), and the occasional straight-ahead jazz composition (Tadd Dameron’s “Good Bait”), and although she employed conventional jazz instrumentation (piano, bass, drums) for years, Simone was never fully committed to all the aesthetic traditions of jazz.
That’s another reason, I think, for her wide acceptance today. She never quite swung, not with ease and freedom. To be sure, she could hold her own with swinging bandmates, and she could pull out swing riffs if she needed them. But Simone’s choice was to bring the disciplined rhythmic stateliness of chamber music to material associated with jazz, as well as to spirituals, folk tunes, and the many other kinds of music that she took up as she matured as an artist. To the jazz traditionalists who always think of their traditions as hip, Simone has always sounded a little square. And so she doesn’t come across now to the general audience as dated by ossifying hipster jazziness.
Her voice, in pointed contrast to her piano playing, was untutored, informal—blistered and gray. She sounded oldish at twenty-five, and her quivery vibrato gave her music the quality of a haunting. Simone was mocked sometimes for sounding masculine, and the tinge of the transgressive likely contributes, too, to her enduring appeal to the pop audience. There is no cheesy chanteuse continentalism or cutesy pin-up sass in her singing. Her tone, always acrid, grew more stinging over time. She tended to sing a couple of microtones sharp—not quite out of key, but on the top end of the notes, an effect that gave her voice some of its spikiness. To hear one of Simone’s recordings on a playlist today, popping up between tracks by singers such as Björk or Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Simone sounds among sisters. She pioneered the caustic severity that pop singers, male and female, have learned to adopt to show their seriousness.
NINA SIMONE WAS never anything but serious, and her development as an artist and public figure can be understood by two measures: how she applied her seriousness and how much of it she applied. Everything else is gossip. For her first five years as a recording artist and concert performer, Simone fixed her will on the making of her idiosyncratic music. Then, in 1963, came the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and Simone’s slow-simmering engagement with the civil rights movement came to a quick boil. Along with other notable performing artists who later proved integral to the movement, such as Duke Ellington and Lena Horne, Simone did not rush early to join public protests for the cause; like them, she took action at first by making proudly African American art.
Simone wrote the strange and unshakable song of protest called “Mississippi Goddam”—a catchy tune with lacerating lyrics set to a bouncy 2/4 march beat. Introducing it at Carnegie Hall in a performance captured on her album Nina Simone in Concert, Simone half-joked that “this is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” The song effectively channels the profound sense of aggrievement that Simone felt at several key points in her life, beginning with her rejection by the Curtis Institute:
You lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears....
Oh, but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies....
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi
When people I know say they love Nina Simone, the person they talk about is the Simone who began to take form with “Mississippi Goddam,” a woman who embodied commitment to personal, social, and political principles, a black celebrity activist with no capacity for compromise. The female Miles Davis. A musical Malcolm X.
This image started to coalesce in the mid-’60s, in part through songs of the black experience that Simone produced as a blossoming songwriter: most notably, in addition to “Mississippi Goddam,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” an homage to Lorraine Hansberry co-written with Weldon Irvine, the multi-instrumentalist and bandleader who helped carry Simone away from jazz and into pop-funk, and “Four Women,” a group portrait of African American archetypes (“Aunt Sarah,” a slave; “Saffronia,” a mulatto; “Sweet Thing,” a sex object; and “Peaches,” a radical). By the late ’60s, “Four Women” seemed very much like a self-portrait, a quadtych of the transformations in Simone’s self-projections over the years. In both her music and her personal presentation, Simone grew funkier, groovier, and more Afrocentric. She took to wearing tall hairpieces and robe-like gowns on stage, and she instructed the members of her band (including Gene Perla, the bassist, who was Italian) to wear dashikis.
I saw Simone perform only once, as part of the JVC Jazz Festival in 1992. The show was staged at Carnegie Hall and timed close to the publication of Simone’s memoir. She had a small rhythm-based group, with at least two percussionists, as I recall, and the fine Al Shackman doubling on guitar and vibes. I can’t remember what the band was wearing. My most vivid recollections of the concert are these: Simone looked spectacular in something flowing. She walked off the stage at least a couple of times and disappeared for a few minutes, without explanation, as Miles Davis used to do. She glowered. She talked through most of the songs in a cool, brusque monotone, and she did “My Way” with more bravura than Sinatra.
I thought she was having a bad night or in decline. My observation at the time was that Simone’s persona as a woman of rage carried the night—her image overwhelmed her music. I wished then, as I do now, that I had seen Simone before then, in what I imagined to have been her prime. I had no inkling that what I was witnessing was the Simone that would endure, a woman whose image was a force of such inexorability that she did not have to care about her music anymore.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic. This article originally ran in the August 18, 2011, issue of the magazine.