Sonny Rollins once said that if Nina Simone was a jazz singer, then he didn’t understand jazz. Nevertheless, a lot of her obituaries call her a jazz singer. They also refer to her as singing pop, cabaret, rhythm and blues, soul, blues, classical art song and gospel.
She had a different idea. “If I had to be called something, it should have been a folk singer because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing.”
Maybe that’s true of her piano playing. But her singing, not her playing, defined her. Mainly, it defined her as Nina Simone, sui generis. But if you need a label, try this one: Freedom singer.
The term describes her militant presence in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the way that she sang, both within and without the limits of predictable cadence and melody. More than that, it describes what she sought. Like her good friends James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, Nina Simone made art about wanting to live like a free person. This certainly didn’t mean to live-or to sing-like a white person or for that matter, an American. It meant living, and singing, like a person who not only counted on the promise but lived in the actuality of the American Dream.
Personally, she could be haughty, with audiences as well as everyone else, but once the music started, her hauteur showed its real face: an unshakable, irrevocable commitment to her own self-worth, and by extension, ours, too. This is what Aretha Franklin and everyone else found in songs like “To Be Young Gifted and Black” and it’s what let Simone set “Mississippi Goddamn,” otherwise a “protest” song, to a jaunty cabaret arrangement and fill it with jokes that turn out to be time-bombs. The shadow that she casts across her blues, especially “Noobdy’s Fault But Mine” and “Work Song,” represents not so much what it is to live without freedom as what it is to live with the fear of losing the sense of self that allows freedom to exist.
“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free,” she sang, so delicately that it sounds like she feared the concept would shatter from merely being uttered out loud. But she ends that song on an entirely different note: “I sing ’cause I know how it feels to be free.” In that moment, so does the listener. This tension animates virtually every one of the songs she sang and all of the songs she wrote, starting with “Four Women,” which speaks like a condensed Toni Morrison novel twenty years early.
Her classical training made her wish that she could convey that spirit simply by singing her songs. If you hear her sing “I Put a Spell On You,” “I Loves You Porgy” or “To Love Somebody,” you know she could-she still stands as the greatest interpretive singer of the ’60s, pouncing on songs by the likes of Dylan, Leonard Cohen, George Harrison and Randy Newman with cat-like grace and singularly personal insight. (This week, I find many of them too painful to listen to.) But once Hansberry convinced Simone that joining in the Movement would not diminish but enhance her work, she took off in the opposite direction. No singer-no artist–committed herself or her work to the Movement more fully than Simone, and she followed its twists and turns from the days of Freedom Marches to the less hopeful time of identity politics that lay just the other side. I Put A Spell On You, one of the great music autobiographies, spends at least as much time conveying her political attachments and adventures as talking about her music career or personal life.
Simone took the treacheries with which the Movement it ended so deeply to heart that she went into exile, first in Liberia, then in Barbardos, finally in the south of France. She returned occasionally, always written up as a self-involved diva but, perceptive as always. She found her native country’s racial and political malaise, she said in 1996, “worse than ever.” In that respect, what a mercy that she will not, as planned, tour the U.S. this spring.
Nina Simone hadn’t made an important record or written a well-known song since the early ’70s, so in a sense her absence will not be widely felt. But she had a song about that, too. “I’ve forgotten you, just like I said I would / Of course I have / Well, maybe except when I hear your name.” The words are Hoagy Carmichael’s. The sentiment is hers. And ours.
DAVE MARSH coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org