all that jazz

I tend to find documentaries play better for me in an intimate home video setting as opposed to the more grandiose theatrical experience, and so despite considering myself a fan, it was with trepidation that I wandered into the uninspiredly titled Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2008). O’Day, who until her passing last year was widely considered the last great female jazz vocalist who could be mentioned in the same breath as Holiday, Fitzgerald and Vaughn, led the type of life one can easily imagine being made into a biopic that wins actresses Academy Awards—there is enough heroin, failed marriages, memorable music and Esther Blodgett-esque comebacks to supply material for a dozen industrious screenwriters. But always cutting through the stock-documentary checklist of events-to-cover is O’Day herself. A startling firecracker of a woman, one moment she’s the hard-boiled, sharp-featured stock blonde of a 40’s noir, the next she’s a folksy Barbara Jean (of Nashville fame) good-naturedly burbling away at god knows what.

The film is worth watching for the skewering of even her most wrenching memories with sly humor, but of primary importance: that voice! At first careening through the quarter note vocal pyrotechnics of a song like “Tea for Two” with dazzling ease, later there’s the ravaged voice that hints at countless personal stories and long private histories contained within each uttered word. And O’Day’s story ends up being inspirational, almost despite itself, as here is a woman who beat the odds and continued to do the thing she loved most until she almost literally dropped dead. Indestructible! was the title of her last album, released just three years ago—and it serves as a remarkable summation of O’Day herself (pity it wasn’t used as the title for the film itself).

Intrigued by the clip shown and O’Day’s pronouncement that the glowing notices she subsequently received in The New York Times was “the highlight of [her] life,” I tracked down Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960) and was more or less unprepared for the sheer greatness I beheld. O’Day wasn’t kidding when she emphasized that everyone was there at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958: Louis Armstrong, Dinah Washington, Thelonious Monk, Mahalia Jackson, Big Maybelle, Chico Hamilton and countless others not actually shown in the film—that these performances were captured at all for posterity is impressive enough, but then, what performances!

Interspersed between O’Day’s expert deconstruction of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and Louis Armstrong’s onstage banter and Big Maybelle’s earthy growl is footage that turns the cameras upon the assembled crowds with fascinating results—several times a barely-glimpsed attendee makes as indelible impression as the performers themselves.  This allows for unexpected sociological observation: the pre-Civil Rights crowd wasn’t neatly segregated as I had expected—young blacks down from Harlem sat interspersed with the Newport white elite in their expensive suits and pearls (sometimes reality can be so much more complex than the tidy demarcations made in history textbooks).

And then there’s Mahalia Jackson, who performs three songs to close out the film. Unassumingly radiant, watching her thunder through “Didn’t it Rain,” occasionally slapping together her hands for emphasis, is as euphoric an experience as anything I can imagine; then, at the close and the crowd roars and she bashfully keeps averting her eyes from the audience before murmuring “how you make me feel like a star!”—well, that’s just transcendence itself.


i lied.

Well, technically I didn’t—I’ve actually been writing more in the last weeks than I probably have during any period in the last year or two, and as a result am on the cusp of unveiling a new project…

In other news, there’s a great new video of Owen up. And he got a haircut!

“lo stupore della notte spalancata”

Was watching it yet again and thought I’d share, since I can’t seem to come up with anything better these days…

Most of us movie types don’t usually string together “Ennio Morricone” and “pop song” into the same thought, but here’s the superb “Se telefonando” sung by Mina, which I’ve been listening to incessantly these days.

From Wikipedia:

In Spring 1966, Maurizio Costanzo and Ghigo De Chiara, the authors of the “Aria condizionata” TV show, wrote the lyrics for “Se telefonando”, a theme for the TV program. The famous serialist composer Ennio Morricone was asked to write and arrange the music, and Mina to sing. The encounter of Mina and the three authors took place around an upright pianoforte in a RAI rehearsal room at Via Teulada, Rome. Morricone started to repeat a short musical theme or by his words a “micro-cell” of just three notes, that he had caught from the siren of a police car in Marseilles. After a few beats Mina grabbed the sheet with the lyrics and started to sing, as if she had known the tune before. The result was a pop song with an unusual vocal range and numerous transitions of tonality, handled flawlessly by Mina.”

It’s so lovely that I was rather shocked to be informed several months after my introduction that it’s in fact a rather bleak breakup song…

“that’s it… yeah!”

Nina Simone: the Last Day of a Several-Day Series Celebrating the Inimitable Artist

In the before-mentioned Fader Magazine presentation last summer many contributors attempted to explain what Nina has meant to them musically, artistically, politically, or as a personal acquaintance or friend. But the closing reflection, by Antony of Antony & the Johnsons, opted for something different, offering up a feverish attempt to articulate what it is about Nina Simone’s music that reaches such an indefinable place for so many people—particularly for him. I’ve decided to include the closing two paragraphs here:

“She was almost from another planet in terms of the power that she harnessed as a hardcore, hard-boiled black American woman. It’s so complicated being a woman in relation to men and then defending your people from the perspective of the underclass sex. And she is one of the brave few that stared all those demons in the eye and roared like thunder. And of course she was fragmented and cracking. You have to be, to be that brave. That’s why, to me, all of those little stories and gossips about her, none of those details of the pedestrian identity undermine the vision and the endpoint that she reached as an artist and as a visionary. That’s just the path there. You don’t get there by doing what your neighbors think is right. You don’t get there by coloring inside the lines.

The path of the hero is hard earned, and her genius wasn’t in the trauma—it was in her ability to turn experience around and transform it into a sound that people can hang their souls on. She was the voice for so many disenfranchised people. I mean, I’m probably the farthest thing possible from the person she imagined she would reach.

In all my readings I have yet to come across something as lovingly—or movingly—written as this, if only because it feels like it is actually coming from the same insanely passionate, on-the-edge place as so much of Nina’s music. I mean god, “a sound that people can hang their souls on?” A heavy, on the surface overreaching statement, but upon reflection one that’s sobering in its accuracy. Because for me, and I think for many others, listening to the scathing wails of an “Ain’t Got No; I Got Life” or “House of the Rising Sun,” the naked emotional devastation of an “Everything Must Change” or even the wounded amusement of a “Trouble in Mind” is to experience that rare manifestation of direct emotional involvement and interaction with someone else through an artistic medium.

And that’s the appeal of Nina Simone to me—every time I decide to pop a CD into my care stereo or click a track on my iPod she always manages to catch me unaware, even when I think I know what’s coming this time. Somehow, someway, via that rough, gravelly voice and fingers flying down piano keys she’s creates this railroad line directly into my heart, and immediately sends this giant, unstoppable train to smash down anything in the way as it barrels down towards my soul. I can’t count how many times I’ve been left, sitting and wondering what the hell has just happened.

As Nina would cry at the end of a song or a concert—“that’s it!” This series might not have lived up to what I had hoped it would be, but hopefully through these rambling, malformed odes of a fanboy there’s some sense of what this artist means to me.

soundtracks of a soul

Nina Simone: Day Four in a Several-Day Series Celebrating the Inimitable Artist

So I figure today is a good time to list some of my favorite Nina tracks, if only to give some recommendations and perhaps a little glimpse into my musical tastes. The first set are songs—Nina for Novices—are those songs I’d consider more or less “Nina Simone Essentials,” though at the same time I tried to be sensitive to convey her extraordinary range as a musician. The second group runs more along the lines of personal favorites, and as a result, there are more live performances included (which is where I think Nina shines most brilliantly). The last category are simply more songs, because, well, I couldn’t resist listing more.

It should be noted that one of the reason’s why Nina’s music catelogue is so voluminous is because it is said that every time she performed a song she interpreted it completely differently, and as a result there are multiple versions available of nearly every song she performed. For example, in the first set My Baby Just Cares For Me is the original version that is considered Nina’s greatest success on the music charts; in the second, it’s a long, improvised live performance that I recorded from clip from YouTube. Same song, but they couldn’t be more different (or dazzling in their own individual ways).

I’d be more than glad to burn a copy of either of these sets and mail them to anybody that is interested (I’ll take care of postage–so don’t let that stop you). Just leave a comment or email me at And finally, I’m always open to more recommendations myself–so please share your favorites with me, as I’m always looking for more recommendations.

Nina for Novices

01) Ain’t Got No; I Got Life (The Nina Simone Story)
02) Trouble In Mind (Nina Simone: Anthology)
03) Feeling Good (Four Women: Nina Simone Philips Recordings)
04) I Wish I knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit)
05) To Be Young, Gifted and Black (The Nina Simone Story)
06) Just in Time (Nina Simone: The Tomato Collection)
07) Love Me or Leave Me (Lady Blue: Volume One)
08) My Baby Just Cares for Me (Lady Blue: Volume One)
09) In the Morning (The Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl)
10) Sunday in Savannah (The Nina Simone Story)
11) House of the Rising Sun (The Nina Simone Story)
12) Mississippi Goddam (Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit)
13) Ne Me Quitte Pas (Live) (The Nina Simone Story)
14) I Put a Spell on You (I Put a Spell on You)
15) He Ain’t Coming Home No More (Wild is the Wind/ High Priestess of Soul)
16) I Loves You, Porgy (After Hours)
17) Sinnerman (Nina Simone: Anthology)

Nina for the Converted

01) Ain’t Got No; I Got Life (The Nina Simone Story)
02) I Wish I knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit)
03) Trouble In Mind (Nina Simone: Anthology)
04) Children Go Where I Send You (The Amazing Nina Simone
05) Sunday in Savannah (The Nina Simone Story)
06) House of the Rising Sun (The Nina Simone Story)
07) My Baby Just Cares for Me (Recorded off YouTube)
08) Just in Time (Nina Simone: The Tomato Collection)
09) I Shall Be Released (The Essential Nina Simone)
10) I’m Going Back Home (Wild is the Wind/ High Priestess of Soul)
11) Tomorrow is My Turn (I Put a Spell on You)
12) Save Me (The Soul of Nina Simone)
13) Blacklash Blues (Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit)
14) Either Way I Lose (Wild is the Wind/ High Priestess of Soul)
15) Please Read Me (The Nina Simone Story)
16) Just Like a Woman (Nina Simone: Anthology)
17) Everything Must Change (Baltimore)
18) Mississippi Goddam (Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit)

Other Favorites

Everyone’s Gone to the Moon (Nina Simone: Anthology)
Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter (Nina Simone: Anthology)
The Glory of Love (Nina Simone: Anthology)
Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues (The Soul of Nina Simone)
Lilac Wine (Wild is the Wind/ High Priestess of Soul)
Love Me or Leave Me (Let it All Out)
My Baby Just Cares for Me (The Soul of Nina Simone)
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out (Nina Simone: Anthology)
Sea Line Woman (Nina Simone: Anthology)
Turn! Turn! Turn! (Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit)

And now it’s your turn…

“love me or leave me and let me be lonely…”

Nina Simone: Day Three in a Several-Day Series Celebrating the Inimitable Artist

One of the most defining characteristics of Nina Simone is her utterly indefinable quality, and the countless contradictions and paradoxes that play such an integral role in both her identities as a musician and as a human being. I was particularly struck by this as I read my way through a series of essays and pieces amassed in Fader Magazine last summer, a compilation with remembrances and reflections offered up by a number of individuals, ranging from those who knew her personally (her daughter and her ex husband, friend and fellow musician Al Schackman) as well as a number of artists (including Jill Scott, Talib Kweli and Richard Linklater among many others) who feel their own work has been touched and inspired in some way by Nina and her music.

What fascinated me was the realization that all of these memories and tributes failed to function as a means of clarification, instead only seeming to emphasize how enigmatic she was for her whole life, and remains to this very day. Many contributors (rightly) celebrated her dedication to the Civil Rights Movement, but her ex husband seemed to indicate that Nina had deep reservations about her political involvement; some focus on the tremendous strength of her character and artistic dedication, others dwell on her obvious vulnerability. Everybody seems to possess some particular, private interpretation of Nina—to some she’s Nina the revolutionary, to others she’s Nina the tortured artist, to some she’s the angry expatriate and to others still a unifier of an almost religious sort. The thing is, all of these views are correct ones—she certainly embodies all of these emotions, ideologies and experiences, but at the same time manages to never quite be pegged by them. I love what my friend Kevin Lee had to say about this during an email exchange:

”…she really was something else. I don’t know if I’d ever want to know her in real life—seems like a mess—but in those live performances you can feel the fragments of her personality come together, feeling whole, united in the goal of expressing and emoting and exorcising all those demons in as eloquent was as can be.”

I’m not sure what to say beyond that. Somehow all of these pieces of Nina hang together, all interconnected somehow, almost miraculously combining and arranging into a mosaic that created an utterly unique person and artist.

Poetic Space Marker

Looking realistically at my schedule the next several days, I just don’t see the possibility of any new entries in my Nina Simone series. So in the meantime I thought I’d post a poem that was written by poet Nikki Giovanni for the awkwardly titled but otherwise excellent compilation album Nina Simone Forever Young, Gifted & Black: Songs of Freedom of Spirit.

[Forever Young, Gifted, and Black]

by Nikki Giovanni

Howl, Baby
Pull the moon
Down and squeeze
’til there’s no
More pain

Tomorrow is coming

Take them to church
on Friday nights…
make them hear the
words and bow down

Make them beg for forgiveness

Tell the truth, my good sister
Don’t stop just because it hurts
Tell the truth and
let the cooling waters
Let the tears
Fall Down
Let us cleanse our evil souls
With the West Wind

Call the out, Girl
Tell them they have to sing with you
Have to sing with Lorraine
Have to sing with Langston
Have to sing for Schwerner,
Chaney and Goodman

Sure the feds will try to trap you
Sure the feds will run you out
of the country
Yes J. Edgar Hoover will
ruin your career
With the same lies he told on King

But you weren’t singing
You weren’t playing
You weren’t giving a damn
For the grammarphones
They offered

You were singing
For a higher power
To a higher power
Needing a higher power
To sing you home

You are forever Young
Gifted and Black
You are forever righteous
You are forever Nina

Howl, Baby
Call down the sun
To scorch the lies
Call down the stars
to write the truth
Call down Call down Call down
And we will worship
At the altar

Until next week…

“just in time. you found me, just in time…”

Day Two in a Several-Day Series Celebrating the Inimitable Artist

Tribute to Nina Simone by Sam Nhlengethwa

Launching into day two of this little series , I figure a little personal history would be appropriate before I proceed. This time last summer Fader Magazine did a tribute issue to Nina (more on that to come), and in the letters section it printed an invitation for readers to submit letters as to what Nina’s music means to them. I ended up writing something for a writing group I briefly participated in, though it was far too late to submit for a chance to win the iPod and stack of CDs. But I’m glad I kept it, as I knew it would come in handy someday:

by Jesse Ataide

I was at a point where I was ready to fall in love. I had been in London for just several weeks—one of the countless American study abroad students wandering around Britain’s capital city, savoring and soaking up all the details and nuances of an unfamiliar world that I was temporarily going to be able to call my home.

As I wandered through endless racks of CDs at the Kensington Library, I kept scraping my brain for the name of an artist that I’d always meant to check out—somebody whose creative vision was to me unknown, new. Suddenly, as I walked by the library’s jazz section, I remembered an obituary written by Norah Jones I had read in some now-forgotten magazine a year before. I left the library that day with the three disc compilation “The Nina Simone Story.”

Soon, Nina’s music established itself as the soundtrack of my new life. Now, several years later, several notes into “My Baby Just Cares for Me” or “Love Me and Leave Me” and I’m reliving that trek I made countless times between my dorm and a local internet café; all it takes is those first few pounding chords of “Ain’t Got No; I Got Life” and images of the Underground flood my mind.

It’s a coincidence worthy only of a bad novel or sappy movie that just a week or two after selecting Nina as the spokesperson of my study abroad experience I found myself huddled in the tiny basement theatre of the Haymarket Odeon watching Richard Linklater’s European fantasy “Before Sunset;” what a shock it was that none other than Nina’s voice was ringing in my ears as the most sublime film experience I ever had faded to a blank black screen.

After playing it endlessly on my iPod, and seeing Before Sunset twice more in the subsequent weeks, “Just in Time” became my love song for London. It’s more than merely a song now—it’s a memento, a memory of a time when I first fell in love with a film, a city…and a songstress.

And that about sums it up—my early attachment to Nina was formed through the marvelous coincidence of almost simultaneously discovering what would become my favorite musician and my favorite film, and doing it during my time studying abroad, which ending up being one of the pivotal experiences of my life (I delved more into this whole situation herehere).

Life has a funny way of working sometimes.

Presenting Ms. Nina Simone

A Several-Day Series Celebrating the Inimitable Artist

As the result of two rare imported CDs my best friend gave me for my birthday, I have been plunged once again into the dizzying, wondrous, sometimes intimidating, always exhilarating musical universe that is known as Nina Simone. Despite being my self-proclaimed favorite musical artist for a number of years now, Nina is not a musician I find myself playing and returning to often—her music is often too much of an emotional experience to indulge in lightly or constantly—but on the other hand, it also seems that on a fairly regular basis she pulls me back to her again like a magnet, a musical eclipse dictating everything that I listen to for a fairly extended period of time.

And one of those times is right now, and I feel moved to write something as a tribute to this artist that is capable through a few impromptu notes on a piano an improvised phrasing of a line leave me in a state of awe. But as I began to ponder how I wanted to approach this celebratory entry, it became broader and more elaborate, until I now find myself inspired to attempt a personal first: a series spanning several days.

The question then is how to kick off such a thing, and ultimately I’ve decided to let the lady speak for herself (because god knows she doesn’t need anybody to do the talking). Compliments of the limitless treasure trove offhandedly known as YouTube, I first present a clip of Nina performing at the 1969 Harlem Festival in Central Park (find a nice write-up of the event here). Whether meeting Nina for the first time or already a fan as doggedly devoted as I am, this to me is the perfect encapsulation of Nina both as a person and as a supreme musical artist. Please take a look:

The song she’s performing, “Ain’t Got No; I Got Life,” a fusion of two songs from the musical “Hair,” happens to also be my personal favorite of the hundreds of songs Nina sang and performed over her decades-long career. But what knocks me out about this clip is that it manages to be at once a political proclamation (the string of white police officers surrounding the black audience doesn’t let us forget the place, time and historical context) but just judging from the way Nina sits there at the piano, it’s also undeniably a very pointed personal statement as well. She’s certainly tipping her head her hat to the Civil Rights Movement that was swirling around her and every other person in that audience and the African American community as a whole in the late 1960’s, but she’s also resolutely doing it on her own terms. If the song has been interpreted as referring to slavery and black oppression, the lyrics (a celebration of self-empowerment) can also be taken as Nina implying something along the lines of “fuck you” to her audience—or at least the audience members not willing to be led into the musical territory she has staked out for herself. And that, I think, is what I love most about Nina Simone. I can sit there and say “Nina, what the hell?” but I always know she’s going to do exactly what she wants, regardless of my reaction, or if I’m willing to to follow.

The thing is, I almost always do.

“i love you. yes i do. and i’ll always be true.”

I was introduced to Françoise Hardy in the closing months of 2006, and in a whirlwind courtship almost entirely conducted via YouTube, I fell in love.

Needless to say, YouTube clips offer a wealth of vintage videos featuring music virtually unavailable in the US. They’re also fascinating to watch in and of themselves–oftentimes time capsules of 1960’s Europe. My favorite discoveries involve Françoise flitting around Swinging London, though interestingly I don’t care much for her when she sings in English. Anyway, a few snippets of Françoise adventures on the other side of the English Channel:

A bastardization of “Tous les garçons et les filles,” her most famous song, but it has its own schlocky charm (complete with a swooning string section). Tantilizing views of Buckingham and Trafalgar from the back of a cab.

Back before Fergie raped our ears with convulated metaphors involving London bridges, Françoise was already taking full advantage of Tower Bridge’s picturesque qualities. A testament to the days when I white girl bobbing awkwardly in front a camera could pass as a music video.

Because we all have fantasies of floating around Piccadilly Circus sitting on a mound of pillows and dressed in pajamas. Right? RIGHT?