Friday, December 07, 2012

Princess Noire: Nina Simone - NYC Jazz Record

Princess Noire: 
The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone 
Nadine Cohodas (University of North Carolina Press)

Nina Simone was known publicly as the High
Priestess of Soul but Nadine Cohodas’ biography
places her in a more pampered light that in many
ways feels appropriate. Simone has always had a
curious place in the jazz world. Her music was filled
with improvisation and swing but she more often
than not fell into the realm of pop interpretation,
putting her stamp on Tin Pan Alley classics while
also honing a catalogue of personal rage and
empowerment. Her humming vibrato and strident
piano style are unmistakable but her personality
seems to loom largest.

Cohodas’ nearly 400-page biography of Nina
Simone is both concise and circular, depending on
the sentence. Over the course of 28 exacting chapters,
Cohodas gets down and dirty with the story of the
reluctant, classical-aspiring Eunice Waymon and her
late-night, nicotine-scented alter-ego Nina Simone.
Cohodas chronicles Simone’s early career as moving
without a hitch. She grew up in a supportive family
and community who went out of their way to
encourage her musical skills. After a failed audition
for the Curtis School of Music (3 students were
accepted out of 72 applicants) she moonlighted as a
cabaret act in Atlantic City. She became a singer
because she was told to by a nightclub owner. She
became Nina Simone because the same owner asked
how she wanted to be billed. Her paychecks steadily
rose through the years. From there the book goes on
to document her rise and decline with an emphasis
on the details: the tantrums, politics, lost loves and,
naturally, the music.

The resulting doorstopper is an unapologetic
examination of one the most outspoken and
challenging artists of her generation. Cohodas has
clearly put in a massive amount of research and
there is an interesting anecdote on nearly every
page. Nearly ten years after Simone’s passing, she is
still a fascinating puzzle (a remix album from a few
years ago cast her music in a new light while an
upcoming biopic is already awash in controversy).
Princess Noire painstakingly helps to point out why.

Nina Simone @ NYC Jazz Record

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