The New York Review of Books:
Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, the sixth of her parents’ eight children. Her father, John Divine, had lost his dry-cleaning business during the Depression, only to be idled altogether by intestinal obstruction. Her mother, Mary Kate, a traveling Methodist minister, supported the family as a maid. Mary Kate was an emotionally distant figure, but she recognized her daughter’s precocious musical talent, and by age six Eunice had become the regular church pianist in Tryon. At revival meetings she learned how to improvise, as well as how to put audiences into a trance.
Performing on piano with the community choir in 1939, Eunice attracted a pair of white benefactors. One was her mother’s employer, Mrs. Miller, who offered to pay for classical piano lessons. The other was the woman who became her teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich, the British wife of a Russian painter. Every Saturday she crossed the railway tracks to study Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms with “Miz Mazzy,” a kindly woman who, with her white hair and pale skin, struck her as “an alien.” The town took immense pride in its young prodigy, and established a fund to pay for her education. Music, she discovered, was power, but it was also a terrible “burden.” To most whites in Tryon she was an oddity—Mrs. Mazzanovich’s “little coloured girl”—while no one in her family “knew how isolated my music made me.” Her mother barely showed her any affection, yet expected her to become America’s first black classical pianist. At her first recital, when she was ten, her parents moved from their seats to make way for a white family who wanted a better view of her fingers. Eunice refused to perform until her parents could return to their seats. Some whites in the audience giggled. After that, “nothing was easy any more,” as she wrote in her 1991 memoir I Put a Spell on You.
Jazz critics were perplexed by Simone, whose voice lacked the range of Sarah Vaughan or the suppleness of Ella Fitzgerald. “I confess I have no idea what Miss Simone’s appeal is,” Martin Williams wrote. But audiences had no trouble discerning it. Simone cut deeper than her peers: she knew how to open the wound, to make pain audible and moving.
She was hardly a stranger to civil rights politics: she had performed at civil rights benefits and traveled to Lagos with Baldwin and Hughes; the racial echoes of songs like “Brown Baby” were no secret to her admirers in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.7 But after the killing of four little girls in Birmingham, she headed to the garage and tried to make a home-made gun with her husband’s tools. “If I had had the choice,” she said, “I would have been a killer.”
By taking up the cause of civil rights in her music, Simone at last found, in her words, “a purpose more important than classical music’s pursuit of excellence.”
…the consolations of the movement couldn’t provide Simone with a refuge from her anguish. She envied activists who could “go back into their communities to live out the ideas they believed in. They belonged; I didn’t…. I was lonely in the movement like I had been lonely everywhere else.”
In her final interviews, Simone continued to speak of her extraordinary body of work as if it had all been a detour from the career she was denied in classical music. Two days before her death, the Curtis Institute of Music awarded her an honorary doctorate, correcting an error that proved to be among the school’s most important contributions to musical history. For if it had accepted Eunice Waymon, there may never have been a Nina Simone.