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The High Priestess Of Soul: Nina Simone In 5 Songs

Nina Simone's voice may have had a limited range, but its unique power and melancholy made for a legendary effect when paired with her genre-crossing piano.
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Nina Simone's voice may have had a limited range, but its unique power and melancholy made for a legendary effect when paired with her genre-crossing piano.

There are certain figures in jazz history whose iconic status can be telegraphed by a single name: Miles. Billie. Bix. Coltrane. Though there is a deity-like ring to the stand-alone moniker, there's also a suggestion of the intense connection that these artists inspired in fans, and a notion that their messages remain relevant today.

The pianist and singer Nina Simone, subject of the new Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, a tribute album titled Nina Revisited, and a forthcoming biopic called simply Nina, seems to be ascending to that place of pop-culture reverence. In a time when issues of race and gender are reverberating with a newfound volatility reminiscent of the 1960s — the decade in which Simone forged her reputation as a politically provocative entertainer — "Nina's" concerts and recordings feel like urgent bulletins from a brooding heart and a troubled land.

Sometimes referred to as "the civil rights diva" and "the High Priestess of Soul," Simone was born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C. in 1933. Her prodigious talent was cultivated early on, and she grew up practicing to become a classical pianist, even spending a summer at the Julliard School in New York City. After being turned down by Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute (a rejection that Simone believed was racially motivated), she began to play in bars, adding vocals to her act at the behest of a club owner.

Though her singing range was limited, she had a sultry sadness and a seductive quality that was spiritual as well as sensual. She could summon a deeply nuanced array of emotions, from explosive swells of anger and passion to a melancholic purr of heartbreak. Her wide-reaching repertoire, incorporating jazz, blues, folk, pop, show tunes, gospel, and R&B (as well as occasional flourishes drawn from her classical training) served as a precedent for modern singers such as Cassandra Wilson who have expanded the boundaries of the jazz-vocal canon. She was also a dynamic, visually striking and unpredictable performer who, much like Bob Dylan and Miles Davis, kept audiences on their toes and was unafraid to confront unruly fans. Her rendition of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," which became one of her signature songs, could serve as a testament to the mesmerizing effect she tended to create on-stage.

Here are five recordings to serve as an introduction to an artist who brings to mind the writer Andre Gide's quote—"Please do not understand me too quickly":

Simone lived another 25 years, long enough to write an autobiography. She rarely recorded but still performed, in sometimes enchanting, sometimes infuriating form; audiences now came to witness the legend that had already begun. "When I die," she once said, "I want to have left some particular mark of my own. I'm carving my own little niche in the world now." As time passes, that niche seems more and more inclusive.

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David Brent Johnson
David Brent Johnson is the host of Afterglow and Night Lights. An Indianapolis native and IU alumnus, David began his radio career at Bloomington community radio station WFHB, where he hosted the weekly jazz program All That Jazz. A writer who’s published frequently in Bloom Magazine, The Ryder, the Bloomington Independent, and Indianapolis Nuvo, he has won two Society of Professional Journalists awards for his arts writing.