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March 15, 2021
J.S. Bach’s Influence on Nina Simone
A photo of J.S. Bach and Nina Simone
Our upcoming Happy Birthday, J.S. Bach! concert premiere will take place on Sunday, March 21, 2021 at 7:00 PM, Pacific Time.

This program includes three works by Bach along with pieces by two other composers who were active around the time of his birth, 336 years ago in 1685. His music has influenced generations of other musicians and composers, especially after his compositions became quite popular in the early 19th century. Among the many classical and modern musicians inspired by J.S. Bach was the American musician and civil rights activist known professionally as Nina Simone.

Jazz is the genre of music that most people associate with Nina Simone, but her original ambition was to become the first Black classical pianist to play a concert at Carnegie Hall. In her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, she said of Bach that, “He is technically perfect. When you play Bach’s music you have to understand that he’s a mathematician and all the notes you play add up to something–they make sense. They always add up to climaxes, like ocean waves getting bigger and bigger until after a while when so many waves have gathered you have a great storm. Each note you play is connected to the next note, and every note has to be executed perfectly or the whole effect is lost. Once I understood Bach’s music I never wanted to be anything other than a concert pianist. Bach made me dedicate my life to music.

Born as Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, Simone started playing piano around the age of three. Her first public concert recital was at age twelve in a local church. While her parents had taken seats in the front row to watch their daughter perform, they were instead moved to the back of the hall due to their race. She reportedly refused to play until her parents were moved back to the front, and this incident helped inspire her later involvement with the civil rights movement.

After graduating from high school she studied at The Juilliard School over a summer in preparation for an audition to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her application was denied, which she suspected was due to her race, and was a heavy blow to her hopes for a career as a classical pianist. As her family had relocated to Philadelphia in anticipation of her attending Curtis, she was able to take private lessons with an instructor there, but could not reapply as they did not accept students over the age of 21 at that time.

To fund her private music lessons, she took a job at a bar where the owner also insisted that she sing in addition to playing the piano. It was at this time that she took the stage name of Nina Simone to keep her mother from finding out that she was playing the “the Devil’s music.” Simone built a small and loyal following due to her distinctive vocals and unique blending of jazz, blues, and classical music. In 1957 she did make it to Carnegie Hall, but wrote in a letter to her parents, “I’m finally in Carnegie Hall, but I’m not playing Bach.

Simone ultimately became a jazz legend, renowned for her singing, piano playing, and song-writing skills, but she never hid her classical training. A wonderful example of this is a 1987 live performance she gave in Montreux, Switzerland singing “My Baby Just Cares For Me.” For this song, Simone does not use her backing band, but instead sings while playing a contrapuntal accompaniment on piano. View here on YouTube.

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