By Louis Bayard
Sunday, February 28, 2010; B07
The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone
By Nadine Cohodas
Pantheon. 449 pp. $30
It's a strange voice on first hearing. Unusually dark, narrow in range, with a baritonal lower register and the constant threat of raucousness in the upper. Its tone is not always supple, its pitch (in later years) not always secure. It's as likely to declaim as to croon. If you believe a singer's job is to sound pretty, you will have no use for Nina Simone (1933-2003). And, as this even-handed biography makes clear, she certainly would have had no use for you.
Born Eunice Waymon in the Blue Ridge town of Tryon, N.C., she created her first firestorm at age 11 by refusing to begin a piano recital unless her parents were seated in front with the white patrons. Precociously gifted, she dreamed of a career as a classical pianist, but when the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia denied her a slot, she swallowed her pride just enough to accept a gig at an Atlantic City bar.
Only under duress did she begin singing, but she soon found that her voice was an ideal "third layer complimenting the other two layers, my right and left hands." She found, too, that her classical training could infuse pop standards with rich new textures, creating a kind of "chamber jazz" that evoked for one listener "an atmosphere of blue lights and sad memories."
Gigs at New York's Town Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival followed, as did recording contracts, and while Simone never scored an out-and-out popular hit, her covers of songs like "I Love You, Porgy" and "Love Me or Leave Me," coupled with the intensity and intimacy of her live sets, put her at the center of a musical cult that veered toward the religious.
She was certainly born to be worshipped: a diva who showed up for concerts when she was good and ready, chewed out patrons for making noise, and subjected even friends and colleagues to regular gusts of fury. Her record producer said working with her was like "sitting next to a keg of dynamite." One of her sidemen, before playing with her each night, had to go into the men's room and throw up. With some understatement, a columnist once suggested that Simone was "a very angry young woman." And it was a weird stroke of luck that the 1960s civil rights movement gave her a vehicle for that anger. Stoking the fires with broadsides like "Mississippi Goddam," she headlined at political rallies, publicly denounced the white race (including many of her listeners) and became the most embattled jazz figure of her generation. "What I am and what I do are all involved with the underlying fact of color. . . I must address myself to the needs of my people. My people need inspiration."
By the 1970s, her causes had begun to slip away, and her rage was exposed as a free-floating, deep-rooted hostility that, according to music critic Albert Goldman, "owes less to her color than to the rasping edge of her pride." Indeed, what kept me from warming to Nadine Cohodas's sharply observed biography is that it tethered me to such a deeply unpleasant character: a woman who neglects her own daughter and pushes away everyone who does her a good turn, who dwindles into alcoholism and self-exile without losing an ounce of her arrogance. (Among other affectations, she insisted on being called Madame Simone and believed herself to be the reincarnation of an Egyptian queen.)
Thanks to Cohodas, we can see that Simone was -- from earliest adulthood, probably -- in the grip of serious mental illness. (Schizophrenia and multiple personality disorder were among the diagnoses tossed her way.) And we can see, too, that even in the depths of her disarray, she remained a seminal cultural figure. By refusing to truckle to power, by adopting Afro-centric stylings and proclaiming that black really was beautiful, she became a heroine for generations of African American women.
And yet to measure her as artist, we must travel past that particular incarnation. Past the rather dated message songs. ("To Be Young Gifted and Black" was undoubtedly inspirational, but in musical terms it's at the level of a "Sesame Street" tune.) We must catch her, I think, when she has just ceased being Eunice Waymon and is finding recesses in herself that she never knew existed, putting together what Cohodas calls "the alloy of talent and turmoil."
The early Simone catalogue is, for that reason, a trove of surprises. The ebony tone poem of "Don't Explain," plumbing every last shade of self-abnegation. The exquisite fugal melding of "Good King Wenceslas" onto Rodgers and Hart's "Little Girl Blue." The extraordinary "I Put a Spell On You," in which Screamin' Jay Hawkins's camp classic is transformed into a spurned lover's cri de coeur.
At her best, Simone sounds like no one else -- and for a very good reason, because you are hearing the woman, not the activist, not the lecturer, not the umbrage-taker. "Whatever you get from my music," she once said, "whatever you feel from my music is real, and it comes from me to you. Whatever it is, if it's disturbing, eh, OK, but you're part of that disturbance. If it's love, whatever it is, and you get it from the music, then you got it from me."
Louis Bayard is a novelist and reviewer whose most recent book is "The Black Tower."