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  • Nina Simone's Triple Play
  • Daphne A. Brooks (bio)

Listen to the opening notes of Nina Simone's remarkable 1957 debut album Little Girl Blue and one hears a performer asserting her intentions, throwing down the glove: the exuberant "motor running-running" (Dobie 232) trademark vocals, the playfully virtuosic dance of a pianist's velocity that turns the tempo of a Duke Ellington classic inside out and breaks open the melody to mine the ironically pulsating energy, the propulsive beat of non-stop "indigo" heartbreak. As jazz critic Scott Yanow states in the liner notes to the album, Simone's take on Ellington was one of many "unexpected" and "memorable" twists that introduced the artist to the world. "[R]ather than begin the [recording] with one of her more accessible vocals," says Yanow, "Simone starts out with a surprisingly up tempo and abstract piano exploration of 'Mood Indigo' before her vocal makes the song a bit more recognizable" (Yanow). It remains the first (public) record(ing) of Nina Simone's counterintuitive brilliance as an artist who defied the center, ran circles in the margins, and wove together "highbrow" and "lowbrow" forms to create an off-beat repertoire that was, some might argue, "emo" before "emo," Afropunk, folk eclectic, jazz torch song magic.1

No one critical apparatus can sustain a sufficient reading of Nina Simone, an artist celebrated in part for having stylized a heterogeneous musical repertory of songs for nearly four decades. A classically-trained pianist who shifted into jazz, pop, cabaret, and folk performing in the mid 1950s as a way to support her education and subsequently to shore up her income, Simone gained notoriety for having moved fluidly from playing the music hall chanteuse by covering Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" (inspired by Billie Holiday's interpretation) and the Norwegian folk lilt of "Black is the Color of My True Lover's Hair" to "Duke Ellington compositions, Israeli folk songs, and songs by the Bee Gees" (Bernstein B6). She was the ultimate queen of popular music "crossover" in the most exhilarating and unconventional sense of the word, and she deftly and consistently called upon this ability to mix and match musical forms as a way to break free of the racial and gender circumscriptions placed upon her in popular music culture. Simone frequently commented on the significance of her generic moves, boldly proclaiming that "'It's always been my aim to stay outside any category'. 'That's my freedom,'" she insisted to one reporter. But it was a "freedom" that, according to biographer David Nathan, "drove industry pundits and the music press crazy as they tried to categorize her" (Nathan 232). [End Page 176]

"There Must Be Some Kind of a Way Out of This Place": Nina Simone's Musical Maroonage

In many ways, Nina Simone would shape the bulk of her career in response to an aesthetic conundrum: what should a black female artist sound like? Some of Simone's most famous song titles summed up this query. Through her music she sought to make her listeners grasp how "it would feel to be free" and to be "young, gifted, and black," as well as female. Her songs thus served as sonic struggles in and of themselves, as embattled efforts to elude generic categorizations as a black female performer. These points would likewise resonate throughout much of Simone's intense and absorbing memoir, I Put a Spell On You, a text in which the artist assails the cultural myopia of critics too obtuse to read the aesthetic range and complexities of her material. "[S]aying what sort of music I played," Simone observes, "gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there" (Simone and Cleary 68-69). For Simone, the constant (and, in her mind, completely erroneous) comparisons to Billie Holiday were signs of the music press's inability to read the depth of diversity in black female musical expression. People, she argues, "couldn't get past the fact we were both black. . . . Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn't fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be" (Simone...


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