Dr Nina Simone or just plain Nina Simone?

In the middle of October I’m giving a three-quarter-hour illustrated talk about the great African/American performer Nina Simone. Some time ago I decided that it would be called From Eunice Kathleen to Dr Nina because Nina, who was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, after  received two honorary degrees in music and humanities from the University of Massachusetts and Malcolm X University in Chicago, almost always insisted on being as Dr Nina Simone. 

My talk, once I worked out the details of it, would show why it was important to her to be addressed so formally, especially at a time when performers in popular music very rarely boasted about such things as having had anything so grand as degrees conferred on them. It was my intention to show that Nina, who onstage, or  indeed with any audience, could be somewhat imperious and aloof, was not simply displaying another side of her her somewhat petulant eccentricity, but that she was in fact demanding the the respect she thought her due as a black artist, a respect that was not just withheld from her but from more or less all black artists working in the United States. 

As luck would have it, much of what I was planning to say on the subject has now been said in the BBC  Radio 4 Great Lives programme which  was broadcast today at 4.30pm and will be broadcast again on Friday at 11pm.  

In that programme presenter Matthew Parris, with more than a little help from the pianist Joanna MacGregor and journalist Mark Coles, explains how what Nina  perceived as a lack of respect for her musical made her bitter to to the very end of her life. Although she studied classical piano at New York’s Julliard Juilliard School of Music School of Music- she had to leave because of a lack of funds – she was was turned down by the Curtis Institute, and this effectively thwarted her ambition to become America’s first black classical pianist.

Throughout her life she believed, with some justification, that the Curtis Institute had failed to offer her place because she was black. In the end, every mark of respect that she’d been shown was something that she cherished as her right and was something she insisted would be acknowledged by all-comers. It might seem petty of a performer of her obvious stature to be so insistent about which to most of us is rather frivolous thing, but then this was the unquestionably great Nina Simone doing the insisting, and to her it was by no means a frivolous thing.   


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