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piano

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 27 2012

On Thinkin’ Up Stuff To Blog About

by Jnai W

Sunday is the day that has become my default blog post writing day. There is that part of me that would love to have several blog posts waiting, cued up and ready to publish—one after another—so that I wouldn’t feel so rushed (and so guilty when perhaps the quality of my writing has suffered for lack of time and preparation). But that doesn’t always happens. My muse is capricious…and she likes to sleep in on Sundays.

I do other things while waiting for lightning to strike. I dumb out in front of my computer, scouring gossip blogs, checking my email and, mostly, clicking on video after video on YouTube. I click on a variety of videos—tutorials on roller setting afro-textured hair, tips on applying make up like Kim Kardashian and techniques for playing piano using the Nashville Number system.

The Nashville Number system? That’s extraordinary! is what I’m thinking instead of coming up with a blog idea. Since my muse appears to have gone on some day trip far, far away, I decide I’d be better served practicing what I’m learning from InstantPianoGenius on YouTube. The blog post will come together…or not. Who can say?

I run to my Yamaha keyboard and am astonished at the progress I’m making. While tentatively, yet proudly plonking my way through the 3-chorded “Twist and Shout” I’m thinking that I may actually be able to teach myself how to play keyboard. Rather out-of-the-blue, I remember a well-spoken little girl at Decatur library checking out a huge book about sewing the day before. When I asked her if she knew how to sew she said “No, but I thought I might check out this book and teach myself.”

This made me think of things I’ve learned or attempted to teach myself using library materials. There’s the Learn The Essentials of Piano DVD series featuring Talc Tolchin, a highly skilled, slightly extraterrestrial (in my opinion) piano master. There are the Origami Yodas I’ve tried (and failed at) making, inspired by the hilarious The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger. There is the Eggs For The Infanta recipe featured in an anthology of M.F.K Fisher’s work A Stew or A Story. One idea for a delicious sounding tea I gleaned from a great novel American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar; I haven’t made it yet but perhaps I’ll give it a try next Sunday.

At that moment my muse, well-rested, refreshed and a little tanned, saunters in like the whole day hasn’t just passed. She’s pointing at the computer screen and the words I’ve just typed.

“You’re welcome,” she offers, blithely.

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Jan 21 2011

Samuel Barber at 100

by Ken M

If you just read that title and thought, “Who?!,” I’m happy to tell you. Samuel Barber was an American composer, born on March 9, 1910.  I happened to hear about his special 2010 milestone on the radio, tuning in on the very day itself that he would have been 100. He died in 1981, and unfortunately he didn’t live long enough to see a resurgence of interest in music written in his neo-Romantic style.

If you’ve ever seen the movie Platoon and watched the credits, you’ve heard Barber’s most famous piece. Adagio for Strings was premiered by none other than Arturo Toscanini, and it was played at many prominent funerals, including those of FDR, Albert Einstein, and Princess Grace of Monaco.

[read the rest of this post…]

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