- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2010

PRINCESS NOIRE: THE TUMULTUOUS REIGN OF NINA SIMONE

By Nadine Cohodas

Pantheon Books, $30

449 pages, illustrated

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM F. GAVIN

It is no criticism of author Nadine Cohodas to say that as I read “Princess Noire” there were times I wanted to close the book and go for a long walk. Ms. Cohodas is in fact the very model of a good biographer: sympathetic to her subject without being hagiographic, possessed of a clear, clean prose style that keeps the story moving and knowledgeable about the times in which singer-pianist Nina Simone lived. The problem with the book is Nina Simone herself. To put it in the mildest terms, while she was an original, gifted, sometimes magical performer and an outspoken champion of civil rights, she was also a maddening, egomaniacal, deeply disturbed, rude, abusive, colossal pain in the, er, neck.

She was born Eunice Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933, in Tryon, a small North Carolina town. Her childhood, while not idyllic (racial segregation was a fact of life), was comparatively happy. Her mother, a part-time preacher, and her father, a handyman, were upstanding, hardworking people. Tryon had a reputation for racial enlightenment. When Eunice showed early promise as a pianist, her favorite piano teacher was a white woman, Muriel Mazzanovich. “Miss Mazzy” introduced her to the music of Bach, which turned out to be a lifelong passion.

When she was 17, Eunice, having dedicated her life to playing classical music, spent a summer studying at the Juilliard School of Music. She then took an entrance examination, playing Bach, Beethoven and Chopin, at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. She did not pass the test and was told by a relative that she had been rejected because she was black. Ms. Cohodas suggests that this probably was not the case because Curtis accepted only one in five applicants. But the pain of that failure remained with Simone. Even when she was the most talked about singer in jazz, she reminded people that she was definitely not a jazz pianist or singer - she was a classically trained pianist.

Convinced she could pass the Curtis test the next year, she played pop/jazz piano at an Atlantic City bar to make enough money to pay tuition. She began singing, developed a following, attracted critical attention, found an agent, got better gigs and, by 1956, signed a contract with Bethlehem Records. By this time, she had chosen the name Nina Simone. She said her shows at the time consisted of “popular songs in a classic style with a classical piano technique influenced by cocktail jazz,” quite a mixture. The special quality of her deep voice, and her insistence that she be treated with respect by nightclub audiences, made her stand out from other acts.

In the early 1960s, she became friends with prominent black intellectuals, including playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who directed Simone’s attention to the civil rights struggle. It was this newfound militancy that shaped her public image for the rest of her life. She composed songs - “Mississippi Goddam,” “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” - that spoke directly about the civil rights struggles, and she turned her act into a theater of the absurd in which she played the role of dominatrix to guilt-ridden white liberals in need of ritual humiliation.

The audience could expect her to show up late, sometimes by an hour or more. She would then offer a mixture of songs, insults, harangues and lectures, all delivered with what one friend called the attitude of a “benevolent dictator.” At the height of her fame, during the 1960s, a Nina Simone performance wasn’t about music as much as it was about her personal demons and her hatreds, particularly of what she called “the United Snakes of America.”

She had become an entitled diva, a mystical presence, at least to her admirers. One critic described her as an “exotic queen of some secret ritual.” Another said her recordings were “a cleansing rite of exorcism.” But John S. Wilson of the New York Times wrote of her “assured and perceptive sense of showmanship,” a shrewd observation. She was sincere in her anger, but she was also dependent on the money she made in her performances. She knew what worked on stage, and she wore turbans, exotic earrings and see-through fishnet clothes.

Late in her career, she would make her entrances carrying an African fly-whisk. Just exactly how much calculation went into her performances cannot be known, but audiences were paying to see it, so it was in her interest to continue to shock the bourgeoisie.

In 1967, after the Detroit riot that killed 43 people and caused $150 million in damages and looting, she sang, to the tune of “Just in Time”: “Just in time … Detroit you did it. … I love you Detroit - you did it.” Ms. Cohodas writes: “The audience roared. They knew exactly what she meant.” Indeed, they did.

The last half of her life consisted of an inexorable decline in her artistry and in her behavior. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, her eccentricities became excessive. Various diagnoses of her troubles ranged from multiple personality disorder to schizophrenia. She died of a stroke on April 20, 2003. A year later, the Curtis Institute bestowed a posthumous honorary diploma on her.

After I finished reading the book, I played a CD on which Simone sings “Since I Fell for You,” a slow, bluesy tune about love and loss and pain, not a social issue in sight. Across the decades, she knocked me out.

William F. Gavin is a writer living in McLean, Va.

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