Just days before her death in April 2003, Nina Simone learned she was to receive an honorary degree from the Curtis Institute of Music. The news must have felt as bittersweet as it was vindicating; half a century before, the aspiring pianist had failed her audition at the illustrious institution, a rejection she always ascribed to racism. Simone’s account has been called into question -- she was one of 72 applicants the year she applied, and only three received admission to the school -- but that rejection helped shape the defiant artist she became.
Simone’s relationship to Philadelphia is only one of the ways in which the singer and pianist is a complex figure in the country’s music and social history. Her life and legacy will be celebrated and explored Sunday at venues throughout Germantown as part of the daylong event “Singing Nina: A Cultural Festival and Conference.”
Presented by Germantown Arts, “Singing Nina” is the brainchild of three neighborhood residents: Jim Hamilton, founder of Rittenhouse Soundworks & Filmworks; recording engineer and bassist Brendan McGeehan; and David Rose, principal curator at creative agency Sally Blagg.
“Germantown is known as the birthplace of freedom,” Hamilton says. “It’s where the abolition movement started in the free world. You had three stops on the Underground Railroad here; the first paper mill [in America] is two blocks from our studio. Germantown has been a beacon of freedom and equality for centuries. [In terms of jazz], the Sun Ra House has been here for decades. I think it’s really important to know your history, and Nina Simone as an artist brings all these things together in one package.”
To provide attendees with a broad overview of Simone’s life as a musician, artist, and activist, “Singing Nina” will begin with an afternoon screening of the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? followed by a panel discussion with poet Ursula Rucker, bassist Tony “TNT” Jones, and record executive/writer Randall Grass.
That evening, VIP guests can enjoy a set of Simone’s music with vocalist M’Balia Singley at the Germantown Historical Society. Others can attend a garden party at historic Wyck House with DJ Rich Medina spinning songs that sample Simone’s work. The day culminates at Rittenhouse Soundworks, where Buffalo singer Drea D’Nur and string ensemble Rootstock Republic will perform “Dear Nina,” a set of classically tinged arrangements of Simone classics.
From that array of approaches, McGeehan hopes the festival provides people with “a picture of a complete person. I hope people come to understand the nuances and complexities of Nina Simone as a musician, as a person, and as an activist, and come away with a deeper appreciation for who she was and the legacy that she left behind.”
Over the last several years, D’Nur has gained just such an appreciation of Simone through her tribute performances, the multimedia “Spirit of Nina,” as well as the classical program that she’ll bring to Philadelphia this weekend. Beyond Simone’s best-known work, songs like “Feeling Good” and the blistering protest anthem “Mississippi Goddamn,” D’Nur was largely unfamiliar with her story before forming a supernatural connection.
“Nina Simone came to me in a vision,” she claims. “I saw her clear as day and began having visions of a billboard that said, ‘Drea D’Nur presents a tribute to Nina Simone at Kleinhans Music Hall, which is a venue here in Buffalo. I thought this was insane, so I googled Nina Simone and Buffalo, and found out that she had performed at that same hall. I’ve been following her spirit since then.”
Digging deeper into Simone’s biography and body of work has been, D’Nur says, “a journey of self-discovery.” She began singing in church, much as Simone did in her native Tryon, N.C. Her classical background is reflected by the virtuosic strings of Rootstock Republic.
“What resonated with me is her spirit of resilience,” D’Nur says, “how someone is able to tap into such greatness coming from such struggle. She was brilliant, a prodigy, but there’s a lot of pain there, which I can identify with because I also had some pain in my childhood. Music is the thing that helped her to articulate that pain and also served as an anchor for her.”
Knowing Simone’s history with the city makes bringing “Dear Nina” to Germantown especially significant, D’Nur says. “I watched an interview with Nina Simone when she was in her late 60s, and when they asked her about the Curtis Institute, she started to cry like it had happened yesterday. You can’t talk about Nina Simone and brush over that experience; it truly shaped the trajectory of her entire life. Had she not received that rejection, we would not know her in the way that we know her today. I feel like Nina brought us here for her own redemption.”