Nadine Cohodas is author of Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, which is now available in paperback from UNC Press. In the book, Cohodas taps into newly unearthed material on Simone’s family and career to paint a luminous portrait of the singer, highlighting her tumultuous life, her innovative compositions, and the prodigious talent that matched her ambition. In this guest post, Cohodas highlights Nina Simone’s captivating performance style.
Nina Simone performed all over the world in her long career, but something about the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island always seemed to bring out the best in her. Perhaps it was the outdoor setting or the challenge of moving an audience easily distracted by the elements. When Simone knew she had the crowd—and she played there six times before the festival relocated to New York—she refused to let go until her final bow. She liked to leave them asking for more, and they always did.
Simone first performed at Newport in June 1960, shortly after her single, “I Love You Porgy,” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess became a hit. The record label Colpix released her set of blues and folk tunes from that performance as Nina Simone at Newport, and it’s been reissued several times. Simone’s set at the 1966 festival so entranced a music writer from Boston that he was still talking about it to readers four months later when she played a small club outside the city. The audience had cheered so loudly when Simone finished that the MC couldn’t introduce the next festival act until he let her return to the stage for one more song.
But for me, a medley from her July 4, 1963, appearance stands out as the quintessential Nina Simone moment. In just over six minutes, she displayed the range of her musical inspirations and a gift for improvisation that can come only from a deep appreciation of each genre and the skill—both vocal and at the keyboard—to carry it off.
I wasn’t at Newport to witness this moment. But Simone brought me into her world 44 years later when I went to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., signed into the Recorded Sound Reference Room and was handed a small disc and a pair of earphones. Sitting at the library table, I was transported from a quiet place of study and research to the buoyant Rhode Island festival grounds as Simone sang the opening lines of another Gershwin song, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” But on this night she remade it to suit her purpose. “Porgy, I’s your woman now,” she sang, teasing out each word, until half-way through, as if jolted by an entirely new thought, she segued into an up-tempo rhythm, shouted a key change to her sidemen and took off into Oscar Brown’s high-spirited version of the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem “When Malindy Sings.”
At the line “I want to listen from the breast of angel’s wings/ Soft and sweet, Swing Low . . .” Simone made another segue, moving from the sharp dialect that Dunbar used for Malindy’s story to a full chorus, a capella, of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” She had changed the mood once again—in an instant taking the music and the audience, all her fans in Newport and me listening decades later, from the vernacular to the spiritual. Then she took us right back to Dunbar’s piquant slang with a final, determined “When Malindy sings.”
The power of Simone’s performance was undiminished, even heard through earphones so many years removed, one more reminder of her compelling artistry.
Nadine Cohodas is author of Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. See upcoming events at her author page on the UNC Press website.