A prodigy of jazz, an activist and an avant garde pianist.

By Mike Alexander: Music Columnist

A vast amount of the amazing story of Nina Simone’s life has been covered already.

From her beginnings as a child piano prodigy in the humble surroundings of North Carolina, through her classical training as a young student, her foray into the world of Jazz and soul (largely as a means to an end), her firm and often controversial role as an activist  throughout the 60’s and early 70’s, to her at times tumultuous final years. There are however several facts about her life during the intervening years that are often overlooked. Some pertain to events which we have already discussed in last week’s article and some are simple additions to the intrigue and fascination that encompass the enigma that is Nina Simone.

In part 1, we discussed Simone’s application to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Simone maintained throughout her life that the rejection was in the grounds of race, although this was denied by her one time tutor and professor at the institute Vladimir Sokoloff. Simone did try to re-apply a few years later by which point she unfortunately no longer met the age requirement.

However, two days before her death, the institute decided to award her an honorary degree. In addition to this, Simone received honorary qualifications from two other highly esteemed institutions; the university of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College. Perhaps recognising the prestigious nature of such accolades, Simone often preferred to be referred to as “Dr Nina Simone”. It would seem that this astounding intellect extended into her career as an artist, as she is alleged to have written the entirety of the notorious “Mississippi Goddamn” in under an hour.

On the subject of her recording career, we have already covered that she released over 40 albums during a span of nearly as many years. Work from these albums has been sampled, referenced and covered by a multitude of artists from The Animals to Kanye West, and even modern rock bands such as Muse as briefly covered in part 1.

West in particular appears to be a huge proponent of Simone’s work with verses from songs such as “Do what you gotta do” being featured on the single “the life of Pablo” and other samples featured on “Blood on the leaves” and his collaboration with Jay Z “New Day”.

Despite this recognition and unfathomable impact, Simone never actually had a number 1 hit in her lifetime. Her highest charting single was also her first, “I loves you, Porgy” the Jazz standard from her debut album Little Girl Blue released in 1959. The single peaked at number 2 in the US during the same year. Despite this, Simone received no less than 15 Grammy award nominations during her career.

In addition to having Malcolm X as a neighbour, Simone also counted David Bowie among her close circle of friends, to the extent that he actually contacted her on several occasions to provide moral support during the most troubling periods of her life.


As if to cement the immortal nature of her status and calibre as an artist, activist and icon, an eight foot sculpture of Simone was erected in the Nina Simone Plaza in Tryon, North Carolina (her hometown) in 2010. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly donated some of Simone’s ashes which now reside in the bronze heart of the sculpture, adding a final touching tribute to a remarkable legacy.

The word remarkable is in many ways an understatement when discussing the work of Nina Simone. There are many aspects of her life which simply would not fit into a 500 word article which is partly why this needed two sections. A classically trained musician who moved into Jazz and eventually soul largely to make ends meet, nonetheless made the style her own and will forever be a true inspiration.

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