Nina Simone’s music has been part of my life for a long time, and I’m sure her other fans share this love with me. Her many albums show many different sides of her multifaceted talent and personality: her reluctance to entering the pop-jazz world; her limited vocal range counterpointed with her perfect pitch and ability to deliver emotion; her amazing piano playing and love for Bach. There is also her incendiary lashing out against injustice and commitment to the civil rights struggle in the 1960’s. Her tender and vulnerable side, her little girl blue too.
Nina Simone was often misunderstood. The record labels didn’t know quite what to do with her. On the cover of her first album, on Bethlehem Records, she poses uncomfortably on a Central Park bench. The cover art says “Jazz as Played in an Exclusive Side Street Club”. Nina wasn’t a jazz musician, and the side street club was an Irish Bar in Atlantic City, New Jersey. She had changed her name from Eunice Waymon to Nina Simone so her parents wouldn’t know where her daughter wound up.
Trained as a classical pianist, she never became one. She wasn’t a jazz musician. As a singer, she didn’t have chops like Ella or Sarah. She wasn’t a show-biz or Broadway type either. She wanted to be a classical pianist, not a singer in a New Jersey Irish bar. Her later musical proclamations like “Mississippi Goddam” gave voice to all oppressed people all the way from Birmingham to Johannesburg. Nina Simone has often been misunderstood, but will not be easily forgotten. A new film proves that.
The film is The Amazing Nina Simone. Filmmaker Jeff L. Lieberman has created a compelling film narrative that celebrates Nina’s artistic trajectory; her early classical piano studies with Muriel Mazzanovich, her “Miss Mazzy”; the nine-year-old girl who refused to play a piano recital in a Tryon, No. Carolina library until her parents were given back their front row seats, which had been given to a white couple; Lieberman’s film also sheds light on a pivotal moment in Nina’s life, providing new and valuable details about her devastating rejection at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia.
I interviewed Nina several times in the 1980’s during my tenure at Morning Becomes Eclectic, and witnessed both Little Girl Blue and the intimidating Dr. Simone too. When Jeff L. Lieberman came to KCRW to interview me a couple of years ago, I thought, “here is another guy trying to make a film about somebody he doesn’t know as much about as I do”. Boy, was I wrong. I was very impressed by his thorough research and, now that I’ve seen The Amazing Nina Simone, I have even more respect for his work. Jeff took his time making this documentary, and it shows.
If you love Nina Simone, then I recommend you seeing this film. You won’t be disappointed.
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The Amazing Nina Simone is available in cinemas around the country, for purchase on DVD, and soon via streaming.