Strong. Sweet. Sharp as ice. As gentle as falling snowflakes. Sometimes frightening. Always nourishing. That, for me, was/is/will always be, the music of Nina Simone. It’s a sound so squarely wrapped up with the living of my life, that I can’t say where my experience with Ms. Simone begins or where it ends. She’s there and that’s it.
When I set out to record my album in homage to her, the idea was to expose people to the songs that “Nina” had taught me. Not the songs that she made popular, but those which all these years later, I still associate with her. Whether they arrive as little aural fixations I can’t get rid of no matter what I do, or whether I hear another group or singer’s rendition. For me, this homage was all about me. Somewhat selfish, yes. But isn’t that what music is for each and every one of us: a personal manifesto into what makes us tick. A snapshot into the sounds and ideas that drive a life.
And I’m thankful for the life Ms. Simone helped me create. When I was young, learning my history and feeling militant, her civil rights songs like “Young, Gifted and Black,” were the perfect starter to encourage a flame. “Mississippi Goddamn” was one of the first songs I performed live and just the desire to sing it sparked debate and the call for compromise. But that’s where the ferocity she embodied throughout her performances and recordings rang through and buffeted me when I chose to sing the lyrics unchanged. If I have even a smidgen of strength in my desire to realize my creative goals, I credit her.
And her definitive defiance of all things categorically categorizable, I’ll take a dollop of that too, please. From her forays into jazz standards like “I Loves You Porgy” and “Love Me or Leave Me” to her bluesy folk renditions of “I Shall Be Released,” she just seemed so free. Free to sing. And to play. Hearing her skip over the keys during her piano solo on “Love Me or Leave Me” always makes me wish I’d stuck out my classical piano lessons. Nina Simone made it cool to embrace all kinds and music and to let that love shine through.
And I do believe that I mentioned feeling frightened when listening to her. Well, I’ll say it again. She frightened the hell out of me on tracks like “I Put A Spell on You” and “Sinnerman.” Her passion was indelible and so fierce that I suggest you anchor yourself securely before experiencing her renditions.
But then she’d purr, not sing, but purr a song like “Don’t Smoke in Bed” or baby-talk you into submission on a track like “Marriage is for Old Folks,” leaving you wet and weepy or alternately giggling like an idiot. How did she do that?!
And then there is “Feeling Good”-one of my all-time favorite Nina Simone tunes. Because after years of growing with Ms. Simone this song best states where I am today, brimming with a need to feel good. And whether I’m listening to her joyful masterful version or trying to create my own, this song just fills me up.
Clearly, I love/loved Nina Simone. It wasn’t an instant domination. She didn’t have me from “hello.” It took repeated and unconscious listening. But have me, she does. And in the final analysis, clearly I owe Ms. Simone thanks for more than just teaching me some songs. I thank her for imparting a good dose of strength and bravery mixed with a desire for joy. Thank you, Ms Simone. Vous me manquez beaucoup.
Kellylee Evans is a Canadian-based jazz singer whose latest CD, Nina, was inspired by Simone’s music.