Composer of the Month – Nina Simone – Factfile

A musician's hands are on the piano in mid-performance and you can see a microphone just about in view.

Composer of the Month


Date of birth: 21 February 1933.

Place of birth: Tryon, North Carolina, USA.

Parents names: John Divine Waymon and Mary Kate Irvin.

Siblings: Nina Simone had 7 brothers and sisters.

Age started playing a musical instrument: 3!

Age started composing: When she learned to play the piano, it was by ear so she was improvising her own music right from the start.

Height: 5 feet 6 inches.

Married: First husband Don Ross (1958-60); Andy Stroud (1961-71).

Children: 1 daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly.

Date of death: 21 April 2003.

Early Life:

Nina Simone was born in Tryon California, and was given the name Eunice Kathleen Waymon. The 6th child of 8 siblings, the Waymon household was a not a wealthy household, but it was one that valued music. Her father was a barber and dry cleaner, who was a keen pianist loving jazz music. Her mother was a Methodist preacher who loved singing music of the church, but very much disapproved of the music her husband loved. Nina, or rather Eunice at the time, learned to play music by ear listening to her father play their upright piano. She would sit on his knee and watch his hands on the keyboard before she started to copy him and learn how to play herself. As she got older she took over playing the piano from her father, changing between playing the jazz music she heard her father play and the music of the church that her mother approved of.

As her daughter’s musical talent became clearer and clearer, Eunice’s mother asked her to play piano in her church. Her mother was not only a Methodist preacher, but also cleaned the house of someone called Katherine Miller to earn extra money. Katherine Miller’s neighbour was herself a piano teacher called Muriel Mazzanovich, or “Miss Mazzy”. And Ms Miller was so impressed with Eunice’s musical talent that she arranged for her to have lessons with Miss Mazzy. A number of people in the community, including Katherine Miller, paid for her piano lessons and at the time she dreamed of becoming the first black classical pianist. A fund was set up to pay for her education and it paid for Eunice to attend the Allen High School for Girls, a private boarding school for black girls, and Eunice graduated from the school as valedictorian. I will write more about some of her first experiences of giving concerts as a young girl next week, as they sparked her understanding not only of the issues that black people faced in America but also her interest activism and her understanding that she could use her music and performance to help fight for her values.

After graduating from the Allen High School for Girls, a fund was raised for Eunice to attend the very prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York City and to then move on to the equally prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but she did not get in, a decision that she put down to racism. Her dream to become the first black classical pianist was crushed by this decision.

Eunice Kathleen Waymon becomes Nina Simone:

Eunice needed to earn a living, and as well as teaching the piano she found employment playing piano at a nightclub in Atlantic City. However her mother did not approve of her playing what she called “the devil’s music” and so Eunice decided to change her name to hide that she was doing this from her mother. Nina Simone was the stage name she chose. While she initially wanted to just play piano, she was told that she would need to sing as well, and so she started playing songs by composers like Gershwin, Cole Porter and mixing these musical and operetta songs with jazz, blues and classical style of playing. Together with her beautiful voice, she earned herself a small and loyal following and in her early 20s she started to get some attention from the recording industry.

Nina Simone was signed to the record label Bethlehem Records, the jazz arm, or jazz based record label of owner Sid Nathan who had also signed artists like James Brown. Nina Simone did not stay with Bethlehem Records, but moved later on to a new record label. She released a number of albums, which contained her own version of jazz standards and songs from the musicals, the music she had first become known for, and she also wrote her own songs many of which were inspired by and a direct response to the Civil Rights Music in America in the 1960s. She initially resisted writing music about racism in America, and how Black people were treated feeling that she could not do justice to those issues in a song, but a number of shocking events that happened at the time, the bombing of a church in Alabama and the murder of a leading Civil Rights Activist, prompted her to write the song “Mississipi Goddam” and to become more active in the Civil Rights Movement herself. As I said above, I will write more next week about Nina Simone’s use of music in her activism, so do come back next week to read more.

Last years:

For many musicians who find themselves known in the “pop music industry”, and as I am using this term in a very broad sense mainly to mean music written and released from the 1950s onwards (a very sweeping term encompassing many different styles and types of music I will admit) I am including Nina Simone here, their careers tend to be relatively short-lived. There are a number of exceptions to this and Nina Simone is definitely one of the exceptions. Her brilliant musical skills combined with her soulful voice and passion about the subject matter of her songs produced a career that span many decades, and some exciting, beautiful, powerful songs, I’m not sure I have enough appropriate adjectives to describe her music. I am, as you may be able to tell, a very big fan of her music and think everyone should listen to at least some of her songs. I will make a playlist of her music and post it here later on this month, so do come back for that playlist.

In 1993 Nina Simone moved to France and settled in the town of Carry-le-Rout near Aix-en-Provence and from here she continued to tour the world. She was later diagnosed with breast cancer and died at home in Carry-le-Rout in her sleep on 21 April 2003.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog post, thank you. I am always looking for ideas for the blog, so would love to hear from you with suggestions for topics you would like me to cover in the future. Also, if you would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, buying the books to review here, and supplies to make the DIY instruments, for example, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!


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