The nearly breathless phone was from my High School friend Jerry Blatt, Bette Midler’s manager. Nina Simone was in town and would be playing one night only at the Village Vanguard. It was by invitation only and I should tell Art D’Lugoff or whoever was at the door that I was Bette’s guest. Simone, that great singer/pianist/composer, had been battling the I.R.S. and had fled to the Caribbean in 1973 and then taken up residence in France. This trip to New York as well as this one night only concert was totally hush-hush.
The Vanguard was packed and excitement filled the air. Looking only a bit older then when I’d last seen her at the Newport Jazz Festival, almost twenty years before, Simone entered the room, dressed head to toe in brilliantly patterned colors, clad like an African priestess.
“Hello friends,” she said. She was alone, without her famous band. She sat at the piano which had defined her life from when she’d been a child prodigy in North Carolina through her years as a classical pianist at the Julliard School to this day.
In the midst of one of her jazz/soul concerts Simone had been known to toss off a perfect minute-long Bach Gigue or Debussy Etude. But then when Nina Simone was on stage, it wasn’t just a concert, it was a happening, a visitation, a revelation, a political lesson, and a communion. This night would be no different.
She began her concert with standards: "Someone to Watch over Me," "My Baby Just Cares for Me," and “My Funny Valentine,” mentioning other Jazz musicians. Then she stopped, as though receiving a communication from Beyond, and began caressing the piano keys in what I knew was the intro to her cover of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair.”
Except tonight the opening word was extended, riffed on, scatted, moaned, and suffered through for maybe four minutes. By the time Simone had reached the second word of the lyric, I’ll bet everyone in the club understood what it meant to be a person of color in America.
Simone didn’t even wait for applause but sailed into "Little Girl Blue" then “Mississippi Goddamn”, and “Four Women.” Ending that set with her trenchant: "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free."
It had been an extraordinary journey into her and our heart of darkness. Then she was gone.
When Simone returned on stage she had changed her clothing to heels and a cocktail dress, and she was all elegance and sweetness and light, as though having shared that pain with us, she could now begin all over again. She introduced each of her following songs with a little narrative, a personal anecdote, and it was as though we’d stepped into her living room. “African Mailman,” “Liberian Calypso,” “Stars/Feelings” and her one Billboard hit “I Loves You Porgy,” from the Gershwin opera.
She completed that set with what I have always felt to be her signature song, “I Put a Spell on You,” a number that proves that Stevie Nicks is only a witch in training compared to this Sorceress of words and music. And at last she said goodbye with “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” singing it in such a way that we knew she would never leave us, even though she was an ocean apart.
There’s Billy, and Ella, and Sarah, and nowadays Diana Krall, and then off spinning in her own orbit, way out there beyond Neptune somewhere, there’s Nina Simone, the High Priestess of Jazz.
The others you can put on your CD player or MP-3 and listen to while cooking, or cleaning the garage, or driving. But with Nina you must sit down and watch and listen closely and above all you must pay attention.
There’s no record of that impromptu final appearance in the U.S. that I know of. But there is a taped concert from Montreux, 1976, with outtakes from the 1987 and 1990 Festivals that comes very close, and in fact, must be seen and heard to be believed. Simone sings many of the same numbers she sang at that secret gig in Greenwich Village several years later, and she is, well, what can one say— she’s Nina Simone!
Felice Picano © 2009, 2014
Originally published by ClassicalTV.com