In search of Nina Simone

nina simone times bk rev

[Apologies: a draft of this post was published by mistake.]

Soaring music, depressing life. My Times review [£] of “What Happened, Miss Simone?”, a book that paints an unsettling portrait of a unique artist:

Her willingness to speak her mind shines out of every page of Alan Light’s biography, a companion to Liz Garbus’s Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name (the title is taken from a Maya Angelou poem.) The Netflix movie contains stunning footage of Simone’s live performances, but glosses over some of the more contentious episodes in her turbulent life. Light’s narrative — which is more than a straight book-of-the-film — isn’t particularly enlightening on the music, which is surprising given that he is a former editor-in-chief of Spin and Vibe. It does, however, supply a lot more insights into Simone’s chaotic private life. In the end, it really gives us too much. Be warned: even if you are a hardcore Simone fan, this book — conscientiously researched but written in journeyman prose — makes for painfully bleak reading.

One point that nags at me is that the book and the film don’t agree on what has to be one of the central events in Simone’s life — her failure to win a place to study classical piano at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. In the documentary she explains that she was turned down because she was black. Light — like a previous biographer, the French journalist David Brun-Lambert — unearths no evidence for that and suggests that Simone was simply one of the many applicants who failed to make the grade. Shouldn’t the film at least have mentioned that possibility?

More on this in an article written last year by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s classical critic:

Among music conservatories, Curtis, because of its small size and because it is free, has always drawn many applicants for few spots. That year, according to documents in the school’s archive, Curtis had 72 applicants for the piano department; three were accepted, which means there were more than five dozen other pianists, most presumably white, whose best also was not good enough for Curtis.

Of course, this hardly disproves racism. But there’s stronger evidence still. Curtis had admitted African American students long before 1951. George Walker graduated in 1945, earning degrees in both composition and piano (and, in 1996, winning the Pulitzer Prize), and he wasn’t the first. An African American pianist named Russell Johnson graduated from Curtis in 1928, four years after the school’s founding. As Simone was taking her audition to become what she called the first black classical music pianist in America, Curtis in fact already had an African American female student in the piano department. Blanche Burton-Lyles entered Curtis in 1944 at age 11, and graduated in 1954 – nearly the exact time Simone would have been there

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