She Changed The Sound: Nina Simone

March 18, 2019

Nina Simone’s first musical love was Johann Sebastian Bach.

In her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You she noted that Bach “is technically perfect… Each note you play is connected to the next note, and every note has to be executed perfectly or the whole effect is lost. Once I understood Bach’s music I never wanted to be anything other than a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music.”

In a 1984 interview with Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London, Simone recalled her early ambitions to be the first Black classical pianist to perform at Carnegie Hall. In the summer of 1950, when she was 17, her hometown of Tryon, N.C. raised money to help her attend a summer session at the Juilliard School before auditioning for the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia. The trip probably felt like a step towards her dream, but despite what she recalled as a well-received audition, her acceptance was not granted, which Simone credited to the color of her skin. This event not only pushed her to the world of jazz, but also to her work as a major player in the Civil Rights movement. 

Simone ultimately did make it to Carnegie, after gaining fame with her version of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” though she remarked in a letter to her parents, “I’m finally in Carnegie Hall, but I’m not playing Bach.” Today she is remembered primarily for her impact on jazz and blues music, but she never did hide her classical training. Her piano prowess stood tall alongside her powerful contralto and political messaging, and her love for Bach is no more evident than in a 1987 performance of “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” in Montreux, Switzerland. She abandoned her full band and played an elaborate fugal accompaniment on piano, perfectly blending her lifelong training with her inimitable jazz vocals. Her genius and propensity to push boundaries – musical and cultural – is on full display and encapsulates how intensely she changed the sound of American music forever.