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Giant Steps: Nina Simone


If you look at the history section on the webpage for the famed Curtis Institute of Music, one historical fact from it’s almost 100 year history is conspicuously omitted.

The year was 1951...and the Institute had just rejected a prodigious young female pianist on the basis of her colour. Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Barber both welcome,  but not, Eunice Kathleen Waymon.

Her dream was simple. 

She wanted to be a concert pianist, but instead of a taste of that rarefied limelight, she instead gained the clarity that comes from the sting of calculated rejection. A few years later when she decided to dip into the popular music of the time she took the stage name Nina Simone.  The world of jazz had found a rare talent. A complicated high priestess.

Simone could drive a Bach fugue through the center of a negro spiritual. She could easily handle the songs written for and by other artist and through sheer force of character steal them right out from under their creators -- I Put A Spell on You, Sinnerman, Baltimore, Ain’t Got No (Life) -- not hers but all hers. And of course, you cannot separate Miss Simone from the politics of her time. A dark skinned woman, as she said, she looked like everything white people despised. She was, outspoken but an often misunderstood voice in civil rights era America. Telling the story of being Young Gifted and Black to audiences from Harlem to Helsinki and emanating white hot rage when the world desperately needed to see her brand of white hot rage. Mississippi Goddamn, one of many scorching compositions from her own pen shook America to it’s core.

Like many African-Americans her personal struggle was indistinguishable from the battle for equal rights and justice taking place in her home country. It all took a toll. Spiritual, physical and  mental exhaustion plagued Nina Simone, it was the fallout from being unflinchingly  honest one moment and being mired in mental disturbance the next. She felt deeper than most and that’s what endures to this day. As she said, “ I feel what they feel and people who listen to me know that and it makes them feel like they’re not alone.”

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