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  • Writer's pictureJohn Patota

Young, Gifted and Black

The story of Nina Simone

By John Patota September 25, 2022

Nina Simone, a jazz pianist and recording star with a distinctive brand of soulful blues and gospel music from Tryon, North Carolina became a world-wide star and outspoken voice for racial justice and civil rights.

This larger-than-life depiction of Simone was done by popular Chapel Hill, North Carolina mural artist, Scott Nurkin. It is one of many other grand murals by noted North Carolina performers such as Hamlet’s jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, Shelby’s bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs and Durham’s singer Betty Davis. Part of NC Musician Murals Project, each of his works can be seen in the musician's home town.

5-story mural by Scott Nurkin of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane in his native town of Hamlet, NC.

My interest in art on such a grand scale brought me to Tryon, North Carolina, learning about the remarkable life of Nina Simone.

Very much a child of the Great Depression, Simone, who’s given name was Eunice Waymon, grew up in the small, but comparatively well-to-do town of Tyron, North Carolina. Located in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains on the border of South Carolina, Tryon grew around a single track railway built after the last Cherokee Indian was forced off his ancestral hunting grounds in 1855. The small town of Tryon was popular in the 1920’s as a resort destination for people as far away as Florida wanting to enjoy its cool summers and mild winters. Horses and Prohibition moonshine also attracted visitors. To this day, “the friendliest town in the South”, Tryon is a popular place to visit with a thriving downtown, active arts community and equestrian center.

A child prodigy since the age of 2, she learned to play piano in church and sing her Daddy’s folk songs to friends and family. Seeing her enormous talent even at a young age, the good people of Tryon made donations to establish a generous fund so that Eunice could take weekly classical piano lessons all the way through high school, where she graduated Valedictorian. Eunice was very much part of the Tryon community, giving regular recitals as a way to give back for church collections, generous fundraisers and private donations. Like American in that age, Tryon was racially segregated. At one recital, she refused to begin until a white couple that had taken her parent’s front row seats had given them back up. Her ambitions to be the first black concert pianist took a giant step toward reality when received a one year scholarship to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York City. There, she practiced her piano up to five hours a day, studying under well-known professors, always driving toward her ambition - to perform in the great concert halls of the world.

When the scholarship expired and money grew short, she decided to put all she had into an audition for another scholarship, this time in Philadelphia at the Curtis Institute. Her God-given talent and extraordinary effort to get better over years of practice and lesions were not enough. She was turned down, and came to think prejudice had a hand in it.

“I never got over that jolt of racism” she said. Later, she would compare her painful rejection to that of Marion Anderson, the respected and enormously popular singer of the day.

After being told by the Daughters of the Confederacy that she could not sing at one of their events because of the color of her skin, Anderson was invited by no less that First Lady Elenor Roosevelt to sing on steps of the Lincoln Memorial. On Easter Sunday of 1939, Marion sang in front of 75,000 people. A much larger audience than the event she was rejected for.

Even now, Washington-area school children commemorate the event by gathering at the memorial to sing and learn about the history made the day Anderson opened her concert by performing an emotional rendition of “My Country, 'Tis of Thee” to a racially diverse audience.

“In the real word things don’t always turn out the way you think they will, and there’s nothing you can do about it” she wrote in her 1991 autobiography, “I Put a Spell on You”. A Jazz album and sultry song with her on the piano of the same name was released in 1965.

After Simone’s rejection by the Curtis Institute, she began performing in dive bars in Manhattan, then later upscale dinner clubs in Atlantic City and Philadelphia. There, she wrote her own songs and learned to improvise with other performers. In a 1967 New York Times article describes her after a recent appearance at Carnegie Hall: “Her long fingers began to stroke the keys softly in a lazy, sinuous rhythm. She hummed along with the beat, vocalizing a low keening sound.” and “her voice gradually filled the room with a building, spreading a sense of tension.”

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, “Throughout her career, Simone exhibited musical genius that couldn’t be denied or ignored. She spoke and sang about topics like standards of beauty for black women, oppression, and righteous anger motivated by hundreds of years of slavery and systemic racism.” “She traveled the world and performed for over four decades, often following momentous historic events like the Selma to Montgomery March and Dr. King’s assassination. She was, in short, a motivating figure for audiences around the world.” Simone wrote and recorded “Mississippi Goddam”, her emotional song, delivered with passion, about racial injustice after four young girls in Birmingham, Alabama, died in a church bombing.

Her obituary included a telling sentence, “Unafraid to speak her mind, she frequently clashed with promoters and occasionally berated her audiences for not paying attention, but her temperament did nothing to diminish her appeal.” “All my life I’ve wanted to shout out my feelings of being imprisoned”, Simone was quoted saying.

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