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Nina Simone, 70; Maverick Singer, Pianist Performed Collages of Protest, Heartbreak

April 22, 2003|Geoff Boucher | Times Staff Writer

Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tyron, N.C., on Feb. 21, 1933, the sixth of seven children of a dry cleaner and barber named John Divine Waymon and a Methodist minister, Mary Kate Waymon.

"Everything that happened to me as a child involved music," Simone wrote in her autobiography, "You Put a Spell on Me." "Everybody played music. There was never any formal training; we learned to play the same way we learned to walk, it was that natural."

By age 6, when she became the pianist for her church congregation, Simone was setting herself apart even from the rest of her parents' musically gifted children. Soon she was in formal training with a British piano teacher -- the Waymons could not afford the tutoring, but Mary Kate Waymon cleaned the house of a woman who insisted on helping with the expense when she became aware of the prodigy in the community.

The lessons quickly inspired the young girl. "When I understood Bach's music," Simone wrote in her book, "I never wanted to be anything other than a concert pianist; Bach made me dedicate my life to music."

That dedication took her to a one-year scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. After being rejected by the Curtis Institute, she turned to non-academic avenues.

In 1954, she began playing piano at the Midtown, an Irish pub off of the boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J., and by then she had switched to her more familiar stage name (the "Simone" was a nod to a favorite actress, Simone Signoret) to keep her nightlife career from the attention of her pious, Methodist mother.

Her performances, though, quickly caught the ear of young jazz fans and others intrigued by her offbeat hybrid sound. With her background in formal training and rootsy heritage, she turned her sets into collage art -- classical selections melded with gospel and pop, sometimes weaving back and forth in the same song.

The Midtown notoriety led her to Philadelphia and then to Greenwich Village in New York City, where Simone soon found a recording deal and the beginning of a mercurial career.

In 2000, during one of her rare returns to the United States, Simone performed at the Wiltern Theatre and was joined for several songs by her daughter, who performs under the one-word name Simone.

Jazz critic Don Heckman wrote of the night: "An experience that has as much to do with a soul-stirring, spirit-raising, shamanistic ritual as it does with a mere program of music.... But she could have come on to a stage with nothing more than her piano as a companion and the crowd would have been just as pleased, the music no less assertive and challenging.

" 'Diva' may not be quite sufficient to describe her artistry, but until someone comes up with a more expansive emblem, it'll have to do. And no one is more richly deserving of the title, in all its aspects, than Nina Simone."

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