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Nina Simone: An Appreciation

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 2 May 2003—After Nina Simone died last week, Raymond Gonzalez, her personal manager for 16 years, recalled how they met. He laughed and shook his head with wonder and said: "You know what she did? She pulled a knife on me." It did not seem to be an unpleasant memory.

It was 1981, he was the artistic director for a music festival in the Spanish city of Pamplona, which had engaged Simone for a concert. She was having personal problems. Her reputation was in shreds. Based in Geneva, she was working small clubs around Europe. Pamplona was a rare good gig for her. Simone made promoters nervous. She said it was because they did not know how to relate to a creative black woman. They said it was because she was undependable and prone to violence.

Either way, the festival couldn't reach her and Gonzalez was sent to Geneva to bring her back. When he took her to the airport early in the morning, she was already drinking from a bottle of cognac. She disappeared while he was checking in. He finally found her back in town. She pulled the same knife on the taxi driver. Then she insisted on a wheelchair, said she was tired. In the end, she delayed the twice-weekly flight for an hour.

Gonzalez, a Parisian of Puerto Rican ancestry, was telling this Nina Simone horror story (there are others) with an unbelievably loving smile. "It was a love-hate thing," he explained. "I was the only one who would tell her to buzz-off and she respected me for that." Being a star had never been easy for her.

Simone's ambition had been to be the first female African American concert pianist. She won a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, but then she was turned down after an audition by Julliard. She was sure it was because of her race and sex and not her ability. Continuing to study classical piano privately, she began to sing in clubs at night to pay for the lessons. She listened to Bach ("Bach and I hit it off marvelously"), read James Baldwin, saw French movies. Born Eunice Waymon, she took her stage name from Simone Signoret. Her mother was a devout Methodist who thought that show business was just an evil business - period. No matter how successful she became, one part of Simone always agreed with that.

The trip to Pamplona was Like the Marx Brothers but not really. Gonzalez continued: "Wouldn't you know it, they lost her baggage. This was the time of Basque terrorism; there were a lot of people with guns in the airport. They could be really aggressive. She was beginning to lose it. I tried to keep her calm. Once we got through customs, she said she wouldn't leave for the hotel unless she got a case of champagne. I talked her into half a case." Three bottles were already empty by the time he picked her up for the sound check. She said she would not perform unless she was paid cash in advance: "The promoter was flipping out and I was trying to reason with her. After a big argument she ended up being paid. Then she said to me: 'Now that I have the money, I'm not going to do the concert.'"

It ended up being a nasty concert. She was obviously loaded and she went out of her way to insult the audience. In the confusion, nobody had asked her for a receipt and when the promoter found that out, he fired Gonzalez. The police arrived. There had been complaints of public abuse from the audience. Gonzalez signed the receipt in return for being allowed to get out of town. He rented a car and he and Simone did not speak to each other during the three-hour drive to Biarritz. As Gonzalez was putting her on a train, she turned to him and said: "You were great. I love you." "Well I don't love you," he replied: "You got me fired." Whether he knew it or not, he was about to become Nina Simone's manager.

Simone sang songs she liked the way she liked and, despite a bumpy ride, she ended up being successful on her own terms. She had hits with George Gershwin's "I Love You, Porgy;" Jacques Brel's "Ne me Quitte Pas" (in French), and Kurt Weil's "Pirate Jenny." Her protest songs "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" and "Mississippi Goddam" became civil rights anthems. When Chanel revived her 30-year old version of "My Baby Just Cares For Me" for a perfume commercial in 1987, she began to perform in prestigious venues once more.

"On stage, her presence was magic," Gonzalez said. "She had such charisma. She almost didn't have to sing. The way she held herself, her energy, her majesty. She was a queen up there. Everyone felt it. Performing on stage, she forgot everything else. What a voice. I'd say at least three-quarters of her concerts were absolute triumphs. During the last few years, she began to go down. She was mentally unbalanced. Looking back, I think it had been getting worse for a long time. When she took her medication, she was Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde. When she didn't take it she was Mr. Hyde."

Simone's life was tumultuous, disorderly and alienated. Over the years, she moved from Liberia to Barbados, New York, Geneva, Nijmegen in the Netherlands, Paris and eventually the Cote d'Azur, where she died. Along the way, there were tax problems with the IRS. The strident edge of her political militancy was always close to the surface and it turned some people off. Still, she had close music-based relationships with three white men - Gonzalez, Art d'Lugoff, owner of the Village Gate club in New York, and her guitarist Al Schackman.

In her memoir, I Put A Spell On You, she describes first meeting Schackman: "I called the title of the first song, 'Little Girl Blue.' What happened next was one of the most amazing moments in my entire life. Al was right there with me from the first moment, as if we had been playing together all our lives. It was more than that even; it was as if we were one instrument split in two. We played Bach-type tunes and inventions for hours, and all the way through we hardly dared look at each other for fear that the whole thing would come tumbling down and we wouldn't be able to pick it up again."

Reached at his Martha's Vineyard home, Schackman said: "One of the greatest blessings in my life was to have been intimately connected to Nina Simone for over 40 years. We never had to worry where the music was taking us. We both had perfect pitch and never had to explain where the music was taking us. We had a telepathic spirit connection that I never experienced outside our relationship. She and I communicated on another plane. Nina knew I would always be there for her, even through trials and tribulations. There were so many glorious moments. I will miss my sister beyond words."

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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