More than an Entertainer

21 February 1969

"When I'm on that stage," says Nina Simone, "I don't think I'm just out there to entertain." Nina is a Negro and proud of it; she is out there to share with the audience what Soul Singer Ray Charles calls her "message things." When her listeners are not with her, she can be icy: "You're not giving one thing tonight." When they are with her, which is most of the time, the ice melts. "When we connect, an audience and myself, when we hit a certain point, I just get all happy inside," she says. "Then there's absolutely a ball between them and me, and when I feel it, I want to dance."

At her most recent concerts—last week at Philadelphia's Academy of Music, the week before at Manhattan's Metropolitan Museum of Art* Nina and her audiences have connected early on, and it has been a ball all the way. She has danced around her piano once or twice to prove it. For their part, the audiences have greeted her message things with complete concurrence, as well as applause and standing ovations.

Rank at the Top. Nina's hip style is not pure jazz, pure blues or pure anything. Rather, it is a swinging, soulful, infectious blend of every conceivable style that has come out of the "music of my people." Opening the Philadelphia program with The Times They Are AChangin, she made Bob Dylan's classic folk tune sound like a revivalist hymn; yet she never lost any of its satiric bite. At the Metropolitan, Langston Hughes' Backlash Blues had an angular, hard-rock quality that pointed up its bitter message: "Do you think that all colored people are just second-class fools? /Mr. Backlash, I'm gonna leave you with the blues." Billy Taylor's / Wish I Knew was hand-clapping gospel at its best. Sample lyric: / wish. I knew how it would feel to be free, / wish I could break all the chains

holding me, I wish I could say all the things that
I should say, Say 'em loud, say 'em clear, for the
whole round world to hear.

At 34, Nina Simone is saying 'em louder and clearer than ever before. There was a time when her stance was an indifferent slump, her expression unsmiling, her attitude hostile. At best, she was called temperamental, at worst arrogant. She went through one distraught manager after another. But since her 1961 marriage to Andrew Stroud, who quit the New York City police force to become her manager, she has calmed down—and even found a measure of tranquility.

Nina's singing and piano playing rank her with Aretha Franklin at the top of the female jazz, blues and soul camp. On piano, she can tinkle along simply like Count Basic or pile chord upon chord like Rubinstein playing Tchaikovsky. At times, her voice has the reedy wobble of a Dixieland clarinet, but it can also whisper, wail, or break in above the instrumental accompaniment like an Indian shehnai. As Ray Charles notes, nobody ever comes close to imitating her, or even trying, "probably because everybody knows she's the only one who can do it." To Jazz Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Nina is the natural successor to Billie Holiday. "She has an electricity about her way with lyrics that's out of sight," he says. "And sometimes there is a sadness about her delivery that makes you want to cry."

Nina was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1935 in Tryon, N.C., the sixth of eight children. Father was a handyman, Mother a Methodist minister. Both were musical, and Nina began taking classical piano lessons at seven. Bach soon became (and remains) her favorite: "There's always a place he's going and he gets there and he comes down gently. That's perfection." In 1953, after a year of study at Manhattan's Juilliard School of Music (paid for by friends back home), she landed a $90-a-week job playing piano at a bar in Atlantic City. To her surprise, the manager told her that she was expected to sing too. She did, and clicked immediately. It was then that she changed her name to Nina Simone because her mother disapproved of singing in public. CAMERA 5 "The blues and jazz come from my people for one reason," she says. "We are the ones who had the misery of being slaves in this country. We're the ones who had to be invisible. We're the ones who had to devise different means of staying alive. We did it." But Nina is hardly a whiner. "It's a bore just to be talking about pain per se unless something can come out of it that's constructive. I want an easier life, and I want an easier life for my people and for all people that are oppressed. But before you can have that, the pain and the injustice have to be exposed, and that's very painful in itself, because nobody wants to look at it." Which is precisely what she is getting at when she says that she is not just out there to entertain.

* The Metropolitan event, the first jazz concert attempted by the museum, kicked off a new series that includes the Modern Jazz and Charles Lloyd quartets. Like the Met's controversial Harlem on My Mind exhibition (TIME, Jan, 24), the series is designed to promote Negro culture and to bring blacks into the museum. Jazz in museums is getting to be a vogue The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the City Art Museum of St. Louis, and Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art have all sponsored jazz concerts within the past year. In Manhattan, the Museum of Modern Art has held summer jazz events since 1960, and the Whitney Museum of American Art got into the swing last year.