Four Women: The Enduring Influence of Nina Simone

Cassandra Wilson, Dee Dee Bridgewater, René Marie & Dianne Reeves reflect

Cassandra Wilson
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Dee Dee Bridgewater (photo by Greg Miles)
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Dianne Reeves
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René Marie
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Dee Dee Bridgewater

I remember first hearing “Four Women” in the ’60s. It made such a statement to me that I used the lyrics to do my term paper for my English class during my first year of college. I wrote the piece on black paper with silver ink, and examined the different social experiences that the women she sings about go through, and how the differences in our skin tones as African-Americans affect how we are perceived, which is still something that happens. I thought she was amazing. She was very important to me. She was extremely outspoken. I loved that she stood up for civil rights and was the voice of the movement. I recorded “Four Women” on my Red Earth CD, and I’m going to record “Mississippi Goddam” on a future project. She was a very complicated woman.

I had some terrible experiences with her, woman to woman. She spoke about me in a very negative way to a newspaper in Israel when we were both doing concerts there. That was in 1989, and I hadn’t met her. I wanted to see her to talk about it, but she refused. I wrote her a letter, which she ignored. It was unfortunate, because it left a bad taste in my mouth. A few years later, when she was living in France, I was doing a lot of TV shows in Italy, and on one occasion she was also a guest. She let the people running the show know that she wanted to speak to me. I said, “Absolutely not. I have nothing to say to her.” I regret that I didn’t go and speak to her and hear what she had to say, but I was extremely hurt.

And yet I really love her. She was my role model for being proud of my blackness. Because of her ability to put into words what was happening in the ’60s, she made me very socially aware and unafraid to speak my mind. She gave me a sense of fearlessness. I have always included in my repertoire material that has social commentary, and that’s because of Nina. She spoke the truth through song about the African-American struggle and life in general. She just spoke the truth. And she was unrelenting in her exploration of human existence from the African-American woman’s point of view.

Dianne Reeves

When I was in junior high school in Denver, we were the first kids to be bussed-long distances, from our neighborhood to places in the city we didn’t even know existed. There was a lot of tension. I was studying piano and voice with a private instructor who was also my junior high teacher. She was African-American, from Texas. This wonderful teacher was able, through music, to give us a voice and empower us. As part of my vocal lessons, she had me listen to different singers, and one of her favorites was Nina Simone. She’d have me close my eyes and listen to the things she was saying, and then we’d discuss the songs.

I found in Nina such tremendous strength and power. There were no inhibitions. It was just out there and raw. She would say anything she wanted to. I’d never heard anyone else do that. She embodied soul and jazz and classical music, she’d sing in French and do all sorts of different things, which opened up for me this world of possibilities. Her artistry was without boundaries, always pushing the envelope, and she had this tremendous ability to speak for people who could not speak for themselves.

I first saw her perform at the Playboy Jazz Festival. Later, when I was living in New York, she played the Blue Note for a week. When I found out she was there I had a ticket for every show. The line wrapped around the corner every night. The first show she did lasted all of a half-hour before an argument ensued and she left the stage. Eventually she came back to finish, and did “My Ship.” It was so powerful that nobody wanted their money back. We all knew we’d just witnessed musical genius.

The songs that resonate most strongly for me are “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” My sister, who is 10 years older than me, and my mom and my aunts were all activists, so those songs were very much a part of growing up to me. They shaped the soundtrack that made us feel empowered. And Nina still resonates today. Young people are still finding her. If she were alive right now they’d be at her feet. Her voice, and what she gave up to have that voice, still counts and still inspires.

René Marie

I was a rebellious, angry teenager in the early ’70s. There was so much going on: riots, demonstrations, corruption in the government, the Black Panther movement, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Angela Davis, Afros, dashikis, black awareness. It was a lot for a teenage girl to handle. One day I came home from school and saw an album on the kitchen table. On the cover was a very dark-skinned woman with a white turban. It was Nina Simone. I put the record on and was transported to a place where I could see the role music could play in my life even as I struggled with what was going on in the world. Music didn’t always have to be sweetly sung love songs-it could be as raw and in-your-face as “Mississippi Goddam,” as vulnerable as “I Loves You, Porgy,” as angry as “Peaches” in “Four Women.” I listened to Nina sing “Strange Fruit” and, since I’d never heard it before, just about died. I didn’t know whether to jump for joy or cry in despair from hearing someone express musically such a painful part of American life.

I never saw Nina perform live, but have seen plenty of videos of her singing and playing. There is always something so honest about her stage presence. Her artistry is infused with a combination of vulnerability and strength of delivery. She truly does “mean every word of it.” She helped me see how music can transform directionless anger and rage into something beautiful and cathartic. I approach my own compositions in this way: What personal or social issues need to be sung about in the jazz vernacular? How do I stay true to what’s important to me while still delivering its message in a way that will reach the heart of my listener without alienating them? I never felt there was any wasted space on any of Nina’s albums. Each song seemed carefully chosen, crafted and arranged to make the greatest impact on the listener. I aspire to that dynamic.

Nina never stopped pursuing her truth, examining in detail how her artistry could somehow draw attention to the things she considered most important. It takes such courage to do that, such tenacity and determination. She epitomizes the highly valued characteristics of American culture: perseverance in the face of opposition, outspokenness on behalf of the poor and marginalized and insistence on being free.

Cassandra Wilson

I can’t point to a specific time when I didn’t know of Nina Simone. The memory of her music and her voice goes back so far. She’s been there forever. As a musician she is unparalleled; as a singer she has a voice that cuts deeply, going directly to the bone. Her voice is so powerful and has so many layers that it’s really difficult to describe. No one sounds like her. It’s one of the most unique voices we’ve ever been graced with.

In the mid-1980s I opened for her at a concert in Scandinavia. It was the only time I saw her in person and I’ll never forget it. She gave an amazing performance and, as usual, stunned everyone in the audience. Even at her advanced age, she still had that gift.

She is an integral part of the voice I’ve developed. I’ve always found it particularly fascinating the way she was able to bring her classical training into the world of jazz. That’s something I’ve also tried to do, not with classical music, but by combining whatever’s there to create a new approach.

The most important contribution she made was being brave enough to speak out during an era that was particularly turbulent. She sacrificed a great deal in her career and her family life to bring that message to the world. Being from Mississippi, I have a particularly great appreciation of how she stood with the civil rights activists. Her messages still ring in my ears. The first time I heard “Mississippi Goddam” I had chills: Wow, this black woman is singing about Mississippi in a way that everybody wants to, but no one is brave enough to write the lyrics and actually give voice to it.

Thanks to her I’ve learned to be fearless. We live in a different time, and I can’t imagine what it was like for her in the ’60s. But we’re still experiencing a lot of racism. It’s still here, just a lot more subtle. It’s still as difficult to navigate this industry as a black woman. You still have to fight for so many things-conditions, money, respect-but we don’t speak as much about it, because maybe cosmetically we now seem removed from that struggle. Whenever I feel depressed and think I can’t take this anymore, I think about her and the strength and courage she had, and that helps me stand up taller.

[As told to Christopher Loudon]

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