ppp: the personal, the political and the piano

The news that today is being celebrated as National Album Day has inspired me to post the following text on Nina Simone’s 1969 masterpiece Nina Simone and Piano! It’s a text that’s being lying dormant for a few years and now seems a good time to do something with it.

The concept shouldn’t have been so surprising. Hadn’t it always been Nina Simone and piano? Hadn’t the piano always been the black freighter on which Pirate Nina had delivered her righteous anger, her vengeance? Hadn’t the instrument been her constant companion as she conquered the supper club set, attached herself to the civil rights movement, and became part of the counterculture? At the heart of all her triumphs, and not a few of her defeats, there had always been Nina Simone and piano. Sitting down at the instrument in late 1968, in the wake of the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, that longevity must have been palpable. And memory too: the memory of her teacher Miss Mazzy, of her parents’ nurturing of her early talent, of her shame and outrage when they were asked to move from the front row of her first recital to make room for a white couple, of the support of the citizens of Tryon, North Carolina, of her time at Juilliard, of the rejection by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.

The time she spent as a nightclub pianist; the lessons she gave to make a living; the night she was told she had to sing if she wanted to keep her job; the finding of a voice; the bliss of mixing Bach, boogie and blues: all of these and more were laid out before her in September 1968, like the keys of her life, like the notes of a tune for a show still being written. Then there was the voice she had found in the wake of coming through, of being blasted by the reality of America then and there and always, a tool that soon became a weapon. Who’d have known how powerful that ‘little voice’ would turn out to be? Who’d have thought it would become the thing she was known for, not piano, not classical music, not jazz music, not fleet-fingered dexterity, but voice, the voice of those she’d come to refer to as ‘my people’, though people and voice and politics had been the furthest from her mind when she’d been working on her Bach and Czerny as a girl in North Carolina. Voice and word as holy weapons, the channelled power of gospel reinvented as the Church of Nina, that history-sent incentive to turn the stage into a site for the converting of souls, a place where she and they could finally come through. A voice and another weapon – piano! – that could be hauled through the tumult of the sixties to witness, at the decade’s weary close, a point where so many hopes lay burned, tattered, and scattered to the wind, so many dreams deferred, a point where the mountain top seemed as far away as ever.

To have come within sight of a possible future and to have come only to this silence of defeat. And in that silence to sit down, without a band, without those musicians of whom she’d say ‘they are an extension of me or they don’t play with me’, to sit down without them, in RCA’s Studio B in New York, alone again naturally. To reach out one hand, and then another, to engage with the keyboard and then, as was now expected, to add voice, to proclaim the words of others and make them her own. It shouldn’t have been surprising but it was. This was something she hadn’t been given a chance to do before, to let out into the world a set of songs delivered by just Nina Simone and piano. No wonder that, in that era of gushing LP liner notes, disc jockey Tom Reed would claim that here, as if for the first time, record buyers could consume ‘pure Nina’.

Maybe this wasn’t so much pure Nina as secret Nina, the one who placed herself ‘between the keys of a piano’ and admitted that ‘my secret self is between these worlds’. The piano keyboard has frequently been used as a metaphor for race relations, for spatial proximity, a fuller picture of the dialectic of sharp and flat, of the possibility and necessity for harmony. In the 1930s it inspired the League of Coloured Peoples to name its official journal The Keys, while half a century later, in 1982, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder took the metaphor to the top of many countries’ charts with the sentimental but resonant ‘Ebony and Ivory’. But beyond the temptingly metaphorical layout of its keyboard, the piano has acted in other ways as an integration machine. You could play Beethoven and the blues on the banjo if you wanted to – Pete Seeger did, much to the delight of his audience – but the piano allowed a way of moving between these musical worlds that was less forced, less about surprise for the sake of it and more about the ways in which musical languages had been honed at the keyboard and with the keyboard in mind. More pertinently, the piano was an instrument that existed in different public and private spheres and that could act as one of the few constants available to a young girl crossing the tracks from the black neighbourhoods to the white to take her lessons, or to a young woman moving from the salon to the saloon, or from the conservatoire to the concert hall. ‘I always had the piano’, Simone would tell Maya Angelou in a 1970 interview, ‘In either world. I began to understand something about what is called “classical music”. Its structure, its points of convergence. Its reason. And that was good.’

In that same interview she recalled, ‘I had my piano, my parents, my people, my church. The electricity of religion. I had my joys.’ These joys, this passion, would see her through dark times, such as the moment her dreams of being a classical concert pianist were shattered when Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute denied her the chance to study further. As she continued with her classical training, and as she turned increasingly towards the performance of popular music – first as a pianist and singer in a variety of night clubs in Philadelphia and New York, then as an increasingly successful recording artist, Simone’s constant companion was the piano. Following an ultimately unsuccessful contract with the independent Bethlehem label, she signed to Colpix and released a number of albums in quick succession. Moving to the Philips label in 1964, she recorded equally prolifically, releasing seven albums in three years. It was during this time, and her subsequent tenure with RCA, that she became strongly connected to the civil rights movement and to the revolutions taking place in art, music and social relationships. Although mainly known as an interpreter of others’ material, Simone contributed her own powerful compositions to the political song repertoire, songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’, ‘Four Women’ and ‘Backlash Blues’, a collaboration with poet, mentor and friend Langston Hughes.

Despite releasing a number of standout albums in the 1960s – including In Concert, ’Nuff Said and Here Comes the Sun – Simone has never really been thought of as an album artist. We can think of various reasons why this is the case. Each album, and especially those from her classic period, the ‘long 1960s’, showcases the diversity of her work, splitting apart notions of coherence. Record companies might have tried to suggest unity with titles such as Folksy Nina, Pastel Blues and Silk & Soul, but the albums’ contents invariably belied such attempts to fix the sound stylistically. Another reason is that Simone’s classic period predates the time at which albums by black artists outside the jazz sphere were conceived as ‘works’ and at which albums by female artists were similarly conceived (save, perhaps, in folk music). This is partly to do with racial categorising as record companies marketed black performers as singles artists. That assumption would be challenged by the work of Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic and other (predominantly male) artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it still lingered due to predominant ideas of the culture industry and critics during the canonisation of popular music in the late 1960s, the same period that witnessed the ideology of the album as a ‘work’.

In 2013 I published a book about Nina Simone in which I wrote, ‘It seems difficult at this stage to imagine an extended study devoted to just one of Simone’s albums, as Ashley Kahn has done for Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, as David Quantick has done for the Beatles’ “White Album”, or as Continuum’s 33 1/3 series has done for many rock, pop and soul albums.’ But if I were wanting to challenge that perception and embark on precisely such a task, Nina Simone and Piano! would offer the ideal candidate, distilling as it does the components that made Simone such a compelling performer and concentrating them into the pure or secret world of a solo artist engaged in the delicate art of interpretation. All the songs on the album are written by other people, providing us with an excellent showcase of Simone’s genius at reconstruction. Time and again she takes a familiar number and locates the unfamiliar in it, mining even such seeming frivolities as Jonathan King’s ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’ for hidden qualities and unplumbed depths.

One thing the album doesn’t contain is any explicit engagement with race or gender, certainly when compared to the firebrand packages that preceded and succeeded it. But such topics are not exactly absent from the album, as Simone highlights African American histories by tapping into a range of established musical styles (gospel, blues, jazz) and even exploring relatively unknown black poetry of the nineteenth century via her adaptation of a text by Paul Laurence Dunbar. At the same time, when considering the personal nature of Simone’s piano project, it is worth asking why she might have been expected to be offering more outspoken commentary on the racial politics of the time. This seems a strange point to make, given that Simone is invariably associated with issues of civil rights, black pride and identity assertion, but it is always worth asking, even if just as a prompt to re-calibrate our assumptions. What are the cultural dynamics driving the ways in which certain individuals in the public eye – those referred to by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison as ‘movement intellectuals’ – are first identified by their publics as representative spokespeople and then expected to always already be on message? What about down time, personal projects, work away from the spotlight? Such questions have been asked of figures such as Martin Luther King and it’s worth asking them of Nina Simone too. Why should she have to do what was expected of her? Wasn’t that a large part of the reason she felt so exhausted by the close of the decade, why she would say, in her 1991 memoir, that ‘on the one hand I loved being black and being a woman, and that on the other it was my colour and sex which had fucked me up in the first place’? Didn’t she sometimes want a break from having to address these feelings in her music? Or is it the case that these conflicted feelings are precisely what Nina Simone and Piano! is about?

While Simone’s vocal and keyboard skills are the main affective vehicles of Nina Simone and Piano!, the lyrics are also a vital ingredient and reward separate consideration. Although there is not a single ‘story’ told by the selected songs (which are drawn from a typically wide range of sources: Carolyn Franklin, Hoagy Carmichael, Leonard Bernstein, Randy Newman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jacques Brel), the strong presence of desolation, abandonment, apocalypse and, more hopefully, renewal provide a certain conceptual cohesion. The narrative traced from the album opener ‘Seems I’m Never Tired of Lovin’ You’, with its strong sense of spiritual conviction and its resonant gospel imagery, to the almost unbearably downbeat finale ‘The Desperate Ones’ is one that models a dialectic of hope and despair that can be found throughout Simone’s career.

This dialectic tension is echoed in the ways words alternately work with and against their musical delivery throughout the album. This can be heard from the opening notes of ‘Seems I’m Never Tired of Lovin’ You’, where Simone is singing through the piano keyboard before she ever opens her mouth. Her vocal, when it comes, is thick with the church, hovering across Carolyn Franklin’s melody with rich vibrato, yearning vocal stretches and deep blues inflections. The imagery of Franklin’s gospel song becomes increasingly extreme as Simone pledges fidelity to her beloved. Voice and piano grow in stridency and discordancy as the images unfold, until it’s unclear whether Simone is singing a love song or preaching the Revelation. Later, as she approaches the end of Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’, she wrings all the metaphorical potential of the coming tempest, raising her voice to a shout. A similar development is used on ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’, a whimsical song by Jonathan King given an increasingly dramatic reading by Simone. The childlike tone of wonder she adopts when she starts to describe the abandoned Earth gives way to a desperate plea at the song’s close. Throughout the album, she mixes whispers, shouts and screams into more conventional singing, mapping these sonic extremes with keyboard dynamics that range from the barely-there to the apocalyptic and from supple sweetness to bitter dissonance. Her reading of Brel’s ‘The Desperate Ones’ closes the album with a series of whispers, piano trills, overdubbed vocables, gasps and death rattles until the song gives way to silence and the fateful, fatal limbo of the run-out groove/grave.

To hear Simone perform Hoagy Carmichael’s desperately beautiful ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ is to be initially stunned by her interpretation, but also to be reminded of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra or many others singing the song, and to consider the particular grammars of longing and regret that these artists brought to their renditions, then to think again about what Simone brings to her version. In terms of style, genre and musical habitation, we might think of the songs on Piano! as portals to other worlds, other artists and other musical communities, and to the continuities and discontinuities foregrounded by musical comparison. To take another example, ‘Nobody’s Fault but Mine’ is an update of a song recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. Thinking about these artists together strengthens the case for Piano! as a concept album of sorts; religious redemption, refuge and revelation can be heard in Simone’s version through both musical style and posthumous connection to Johnson, a man who passed through the modern world just long enough to be fixed in the techno-memorial amber: one photograph, some family reminiscences passed on to eager blues scholars and thirty thrilling, terrifying, God-fearing gospel blues recordings.

In her later years, Simone was increasingly presented as a ‘difficult’ personality, a classic example of diva behaviour. In his brilliant and moving obituary for the singer in 2003, Ian Penman caricatured the way in which Simone was written about by journalists seemingly more drawn to the promotion of freakish spectacle than to empathetic understanding: ‘funny Nina, wonky Nina, obstreperous Nina, Nina with the outsize dreams’. As has often been noted, the word ‘diva’ does a lot of contradictory work and it’s worth digging for both positive and negative connotations. Although Simone had been quick to apply the term to herself from at least the late 1960s – part of her self-alignment with Maria Callas and no doubt also a pointed reminder to her critics of her abilities as a classical artist – the application of the word by others could be read in more negative ways. In recent years, however, the figure of the diva has been given new and more positive meanings, not least in queer identifications with performers such as Barbra Streisand, Cher, Shirley Bassey and Celine Dion. Simone can be placed amongst such performers not only by the way in which she exhibited ‘typical’ diva behaviour, but by her channelling of sentiment in her song interpretations. In my book on Simone, I wrote of the mourning and melancholy that characterised much of her work and that lay in tension with her angrier or more assertive songs of protest and black female pride. Here I want to highlight instead the dialectic of sentimentalism and subversion that finds its outlet as much on Piano! as on any of Simone’s subsequent works. Divas tend to model other ways in which sentimentalism itself can be seen and heard as subversive and the becoming-diva Simone of Piano! offers a fascinating study of this process.

In closing, I’ll touch on a provocation that I hope to expand on at another time: that Nina Simone be heard as an Afrofuturist. The provocation comes from the observation that theorists of Afrofuturism as it relates to music have tended to focus on male artists who have explicitly connected advances in music technology and style with science fiction narratives. Sun Ra, Lee Perry and George Clinton are the typically repeated holy trinity of such theories, but there have been other more recent examples: Goldie, Tricky and, in a rare opening up of the theory to female musicians, Grace Jones and Janelle Monáe. For all the fascinating insights that Afrofuturist theory has brought, one of its major problems is that it does not always allow for additional alternative ways of thinking about the future.  Having decided on a particular branch of vanguardist techno-musical innovations that it wishes to celebrate, it lumps other musical strategies in with the ‘natural’ and ‘traditional’ that Afronauts such as Ra, Perry and Clinton were understood to be navigating away from.

To a large extent, theoretical models suggest their own musical examples and vice versa. No doubt the types of music valorised by theorists of posthumanism and Afrofuturism respond to a common-sense association between technologically innovative art and technologically altered and/or virtualised physical and mental states. To attempt to exemplify such theories via reference to Nina Simone, who operated in the ‘traditional’ genres of jazz, blues, gospel and folk, or, conversely, to look to explain Simone’s art via reference to such technocentric conceptual models, might seem a step too far. And yet there is something in Simone’s work that calls out for a reading that goes beyond the ‘human’ and beyond the theological. For a start, her ‘traditional’ genres are hardly removed from the techno-virtual issues explored by posthumanism. A striking feature of gospel music, for example, has been the way in which it has consistently incorporated new technologies into its textual and performative arena. The gurus of Afrofuturism, meanwhile, are seen to be continuing a quest set in motion by early twentieth century bluesmen (though notably not blues women). More than this, however, Simone’s dismantling of generic and stylistic boundaries is a model of mutation, mutability and flow, all key tropes of posthumanist discourse.

Examples which link Simone to some of the key Afrofuturist case studies include her frequent allusions to Egyptian myth, her references to being a ‘robot’ and her mention of other planets, planes and spheres. But even without these parallels, I would argue that there is a sense of futurism, apocalypse and reterritorialisation prevalent throughout her mature work that is anything but ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’. In Simone’s hands and voice, the ‘black freighter’ of ‘Pirate Jenny’ is as much an Afrofuturist prediction as the liberatory ‘arks’ of Ra and Perry or Clinton’s ‘mothership’. Of course, it might be argued that, no matter what the lyrical content of her songs was, the music Simone was making was not as future-oriented as those other ‘Afronauts’. Against this, however, we could posit Simone’s famous defiance of categorisation as her particular future-directed impulse. Her black classical music articulated a space of hope and refusal just as her fellow blacks were hoping and being refused the possibility of equal treatment under the eyes of the law. And at the heart of this journey was the piano, her own black freighter, the vehicle for her lifelong dreams and ambitions and a musical technology whose complexity and versatility could straddle centuries.

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