Nina Simone was that rarest of things: a master of all trades, with her music infused with influences from Bach to the Blues and was one of the greatest female jazz musicians of all time


However tagged as a jazz performer was a label she regarded as both disparaging and inaccurate, for the classical repertoire had been her original source of musical inspiration; she would remark that to play it was to be ‘as close to God as I know’. Her earliest experience of performing it, however, had been less positive.

When and where was Nina Simone born?

Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933, to John Divine Waymon (who worked as a barber, dry-cleaner and an entertainer to make ends meet), and Mary Kate Irvin, a Methodist preacher.

Who taught her music?

Her childhood piano lessons were with a diminutive Englishwoman named Muriel Mazzanovich, the wife of the landscape painter Lawrence Mazzanovich who had settled in the area in the early 1920s.

The couple had no children and Eunice became something of a surrogate daughter to ‘Miss Mazzy’ as she was known. She recognised and cultivated Eunice’s prodigious ability and co-founded a fund to enable her to continue her studies.

When was her first performance?

Local supporters responded, and in the spring of 1943 Mazzanovich organised a debut recital for her pupil as a gesture of thanks to the fund’s donors. Just ten years old, yet steeped in the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Czerny and particularly Bach, Eunice waited nervously as 200 people filed into the building to become her first audience.

Sadly Tryon, though able to muster support for a young black girl versed in classical music, would still display the knee-jerk conventions of racial segregation in more banal ways.

Eunice had been aware of this with a degree of detachment, but on this occasion the affront was personal: her parents were told to give up their front-row seats to white audience members. With a fearlessness that would become her trademark in adult life, Eunice simply refused to play until they were allowed to return to their original seats.

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Once that had been rectified, the recital went well, concluding with an improvisation based on notes suggested by members of the audience. Reading her own accounts of these events in her autobiography I Put a Spell on You and in Alan Light’s biography What Happened, Miss Simone?, her reaction was one of outrage mixed with bafflement: why would any parent be denied this simple courtesy, whatever their status?

How racism caused her to abandon her dreams of becoming a classical pianist

Eunice’s ultimate ambition, encouraged by her parents and teacher, was to become the first successful African-American classical pianist. In reality there had been and would be other contenders for this position, but her intentions were clear. On leaving school she was awarded a year’s scholarship to the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

The plan was that she should then apply for a full scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, prompting her family to relocate there. When the expected scholarship failed to materialise she was dismayed.

Word reached her that the decision was racially motivated, although the Institute’s defenders pointed out that the number of applicants greatly exceeded the available places. She continued with music, working as an accompanist for a singing teacher. She soon taught her own lessons, adding singing to piano playing for the first time, but the uncertainty about her failure was to remain with her.

When did she become a singer?

Eunice had little experience of singing other than in church and was conscious of her limited vocal technique. However, her classical background in combination with a natural talent for improvisation gave her an ideal mix of skills for such a position and soon led to her setting up her own teaching practice. She herself continued lessons by way of an arrangement that was not uncommon for unsuccessful applicants by studying privately with Vladimir Sokoloff, who would have been her tutor at Curtis.

Looking to make some more money, she noted that several of her students worked in bars and clubs, so via an agent she secured a season at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, where she was required to sing as well as play the piano.

She obliged, but from the off found her own distinctive way to be a singer-pianist, mixing classical fragments with gospel songs, hymns and popular tunes, often in continuous interpolated and segued sets. Her relatively untrained voice had a range that barely exceeded an octave – she would later allude to her singing as adding another line to the piano part rather than being accompanied by it – and a delivery that sat somewhere between a croon and a blues holler.

The latter evoked the music she played at home for her father, watching through a window for the return of her disapproving Evangelist mother. Mary Kate Waymon would certainly never have countenanced her daughter playing the blues, let alone working in a bar.

When and why did Eunice change her name to Nina Simone?

Deciding that a stage name would aid necessary discretion, Eunice combined a nickname given to her by a boyfriend with the first name of her favourite film star, Simone Signoret, and became Nina Simone. Her chosen course led to work in more prestigious venues and to her first recording contract and debut album Little Girl Blue on Bethlehem Records in 1958.

Nina Simone in the public eye

It’s tempting to say that the rest is history, but Simone’s professional life was complicated. Bethlehem bought the rights to her album outright, which subsequently cost her vast sums in royalties, then added insult to injury by releasing a spoiler album of unused tracks when she moved to Colpix records to record a series of albums beginning with The Amazing Nina Simone in 1959.

She had exceptional stage presence and a volatile temper (she was eventually diagnosed as bipolar) but many of her outbursts were rooted in her awareness of the respect routinely afforded classical musicians, such as having audiences who didn’t disrupt performances.

Her approach to her material was that of the classical recitalist, choosing items from a repertoire and making them her own. In this she was highly eclectic, covering jazz standards, folk tunes, religious songs and selections from the popular music of the day in her own intense style, inserting slivers of glittering counterpoint and expansive chordal statements derived from her love of Bach and Beethoven, whose music she had played after returning from recording sessions as an antidote to the confinement of the Bethlehem studio.

Nina Simone songs

Her own songs, when she wrote them, were grounded in her own personal experience and her long association with the civil rights movement. Mississippi Goddam is perhaps the most famous example – featuring a prodding, insistent piano part reminiscent of Kurt Weill, another notable influence, the song is both a rallying call and a plea for sanity.

Her subsequent international career had wound down by the time her legendary track My Baby Just Cares for Me, featuring a piano solo that draws effortlessly on both her classical training and her improvising skills, was used in a television commercial in 1987, but this was enough to return her to the spotlight.

Perhaps, but if the world has learned anything during her lifetime, it’s that the worst kind of racism is insidious rather than overt. Maybe her exclusion from Curtis was due to her race or maybe she did indeed fail to make the grade, but the question that remains is this: would a white, middle-class male candidate receiving the same rejection have faced the same lifetime of gnawing uncertainty as to the reasoning behind it? On 19 April 2003 Simone learned that Curtis planned to award her an honorary degree. She died two days later.

When did Nina Simone die

Simone died on 21 April 2003 of breast cancer. Here ashes were scattered in Africa

Nina Simone's best recordings

Much of Nina Simone’s recorded legacy is derived from live performances and is unfortunately awash with releases of questionable provenance and endlessly reshuffled compilations of varying quality.

However, in terms of both legitimacy and programming The Very Best of Nina Simone (Sony) is a good starting point, scooping up most of her best-known work and demonstrating the variety of songwriters that inspired her, ranging from George and Ira Gershwin to Randy Newman.

This compilation includes her extraordinary take on ‘Ain’t Got No/I Got Life’ from the musical Hair, often omitted from others, which sees her transforming the hippie anthem into a glorious celebration of identity and self-esteem.

Should you prefer to trace her recording career in more detail, several bargain box-sets of original album reissues are available on labels such as Warner Jazz and Real Gone, which are utilitarian but such good value as to be worth owning.

The seven disc The Complete Philips Albums (Verve) chronicles her recordings on that label from 1964-67 and is one of several Nina Simone items that are also available on vinyl.


We named her version of the song 'My Baby Just Cares For Me' one of the best jazz songs of all time