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jazz

Sep 10 2012

On Nina Simone

by Jnai W

Of late, I’ve become a bit of an enthusiast for jazz, particularly for jazz vocalists. Not an aficionado yet but someone who appreciates the beauty, the verve and the mastery required of the jazz greats. Lately I’ve been reading fascinating biographies of some of my favorite performers.

One of these singers is jazz great Nina Simone though, in her autobiography I Put A Spell On You, she denounces the designation of “jazz singer”, feeling that such a label didn’t fully describe her music. The late Simone, nee Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was possessed of prodigious piano talent from a very young age and classically trained ever after, aspiring to a career as a concert pianist. Not to disparage the genre of jazz, she viewed herself as a classical musician who, if anything else had more in common with the folk and blues musicians coming up alongside her during the 50s and 60s. In listening to her song choices, as diverse as show tunes like “I Loves You Porgy”, blues such as “Trouble In Mind” and art songs like “Pirate Jenny”, one can see that her repertoire boasts many different musical influences besides jazz.

But still a great case is made for her classification as a jazz musician in the way she describes how she arrived at her distinctive musical style. In I Put A Spell On You she describes the song-craft of her earliest musical performances.

“I knew hundreds of popular songs and dozens of classical pieces, so what I did was combine them: I arrived [at a gig] prepared with classical pieces, hymns and gospel songs and improvised on those, occasionally slipping in a part from a popular tune.”

While Nina Simone bristled a bit at being clumped casually by music critics into the same box as other great though quite different performers as Billie Holliday or Sarah Vaughan, there is no doubt in my mind that her musical style was (is) the epitome of incredible jazz.

I Put A Spell On You offers incredible insight into the life and talents of Nina Simone. Written with Stephen Cleary, Simone describes in plain-spoken detail her advent from concert-hall bound, Julliard-trained prodigy to international music sensation and all the trials and triumphs along the way. I found quite interesting the fact that she fell into pop music stardom almost by accident. She played dive bars and supper clubs by night while teaching piano by day all in an effort to earn money for continued study at Julliard (she even aspired to return to Julliard well into a successful pop career).

She was an incredibly gifted though complex woman, it would seem. Simone was confident in her craft but racked with severe stage fright. She was a woman with a disdain for pop music (and for the pop-listening public at times) but who, through pop music success, found a platform for joining the Civil Rights Movement and addressing social inequality. She loved her family, financially supporting her mother throughout her career, but a devastating falling-out with her beloved father hardened her against visiting him on her death.  Her music was her battle-cry, her comfort and her gift to the world.

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Aug 13 2012

On Jazz

by Jnai W

I’m thinking about my new favorite jazz standard (perhaps new isn’t the word I should use–how about song I’m newly aware of?)–the song “Nature Boy” sung by Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nicole Chillemi among others. It’s a beautiful song with very few words and a haunting, delicately challenging melody. I’m drawn to songs like these that remind me not only of what singing is all about but also of how much of an art, an exact science songwriting is. Songwriting, like any other writing, is not just about putting words on a page or over some chords. It’s about placing the right words on a page, the right words over an instrumental, the perfect lyric to express everything we’ve ever wanted to say.

Jazz music has always been in my peripheral view for as long as I can remember. Growing up WCLK, Clark Atlanta University’s incredible radio station, was always in the background of every car ride. My mother had an amazing multi-CD jazz anthology that introduced me to the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk (although my favorite song in this set was John Coltrane’s “Naima”—a song that I’d literally loop for hours, listening with my eyes closed).

But now as I think of jazz, I’m reminded of a few key things:

1) The voice can be as potent, as dynamic and as masterfully wielded as a trumpet, a piano or a double bass (and all of those instruments can sing and hum as beautifully as a voice). No one proves this point, in my opinion, quite like jazz vocalist, pianist, iconoclast Nina Simone—my favorite singer in the universe (Please don’t get me started!)

2) One impeccably placed lyric is worth a thousand pictures.

3) Jazz music is about understanding the rules and conventions of musical theory while respectfully playing within or outside of these rules…or breaking them altogether.

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