“Princess Noire” Chronicles Talent and Temperament of Nina Simone

Bijan C. Bayne | 2/23/2010, 8:38 a.m.
(AP Photo) “Princess Noire” Chronicles Talent and Temperament of Nina Simone Bijan C. Bayne ...

“Princess Noire” Chronicles Talent and Temperament of Nina Simone

Just when one thinks the waters of aptitude are safe and talent is not commensurate with psychosis, along comes another biography affirming that artistic creativity comes with a cost. In “Princess Noire,” author Nadine Cohodas tells the story of singer-pianist Nina Simone, the celebrated performer nicknamed “The High Priestess of Soul.”

Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, N.C. to a traveling minister mother and a father employed as a barber, trucker and small grocer, Eunice was sister to much older siblings and younger twins. Eunice displayed instrumental talent as a todddler. Her mother’s employer and another white townsperson paid for the little girl’s piano lessons with a British teacher named Mrs. Mazzanovich, who had moved from the Northeast.

“Miss Mazzy,” as Eunice came to call her, proved patient with the promising student, drilling her in Bach. Eunice aspired to a concert piano career. When she was 11, she gave a recital in Tryon’s whites-only library. When a white couple were given her parents seats and the Waymon’s were asked to sit further back, the child refused to play until the slight was rectified.

Miss Mazzy arranged for Eunice to receive a summer scholarship to Juilliard in 1950. There she studied for admission to the equally prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.  She lived at West 145 and St. Nicholas Ave. in a bustling Harlem light years away from her southern hometown. She had trouble adjusting to the pace, marveled at the fancy clothing New York women wore and made few friends. Her summer curriculum consisted of a piano instruction course, repertoire and Fundamentals of Piano Practice.

 Eunice did not pass her entrance audition to Curtis Institute and for a time, attributed it to racism. One teacher felt she possessed “great talent” but was “not a genius.” She moved to Philadelphia where she played local social benefits and took a job accompanying students at a vocal studio for a dollar an hour. Eunice spent a hefty $25 per lesson on private instruction from Vladmir Sokoloff, who was preparing her for another Curtis Institute audition.

She later moved to Atlantic City where she opened her own vocal studio, living above the rented space. The manager of Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar offered her a job and the first night of her engagement, Eunice did not sing. The manager ordered her to sing, or be fired. She knew classical and gospel music, and a few pop songs favored by her vocal students. When the manager asked how she wished to be billed, Eunice fused the elements of her given name into the more exotic “Nina Simone.”

 In 1955, Frank Brookhouser, the “Man About Town” columnist for the “Philadelphia Evening Bulletin,” cited her “emotionally charged voice, individual style ... reflects her classical training” and heard “sad memories” in her stylings. Nina also had a quirk — she waited for chatty patrons to quiet down before she played, even staring at offenders. Other club dates followed, as she outgrew the Curtis Institute’s audition cutoff age of 21.