Tag Archives: Nina Simone

Queen Mary Room

The Queen Mary Room was located in the Rittenhouse Hotel.

Rittenhouse Hotel - Philly Records

In the spring of 1957, agent Jerry Field signed Nina Simone to perform here for $100 a week, later increased to $175. Circa December 1957, the legend-in-the-making recorded her debut album with Bethlehem Records, “Little Girl Blue.” The album tracks include “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

Pep’s Musical Bar

Pep’s Musical Bar was one of Philadelphia’s most celebrated jazz spots. It brought in national jazz, blues, R&B and soul greats, including Aretha Franklin, Jimmy Rushing, Nina Simone, Dinah Washington and Yusef Lateef.

Pep's Collage

Pep's - Yuseef Lateef

Philly favorite John Coltrane frequently performed at Pep’s, including September 18, 1964.

G. Bruce Boyer, a journalist and former editor for Town & Country shared the night he saw Nina Simone at the legendary club:

I remember seeing the great pianist-chanteuse Nina Simone at Pep’s Showbar at the corner of Broad and South Streets in South Philly in the early 60s. At that point the club had already been one of the great East Coast haunts for jazz performers and aficionados for two decades or more. Nat King Cole had played there, and so had Count Basie and Duke Ellington, Lester Young and Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Nancy Wilson, Thelonius Monk, and Jimmy Smith. Going to Pep’s was a jazz pilgrimage.

[…]

She was an incomparable artist and played much of that wonderful mix of music at her Pep’s engagement. Starting off with an extended version of the great blues “Trouble in Mind”, followed by a stirring, elegiac jazz/classical version of “You’d be so Nice to Come Home to.” Then some Ellington and more blues. The audience knew it would all lead up to “Porgy” for a grand finale.

About a half hour or so into the show she had gently just begun to swing into “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, when she suddenly stopped playing. Just stopped, her high-coiffed head bent over the keys and the sidemen trailing off. The place got quieter and quieter ’til you couldn’t even hear an ice cube clink in a glass; there was complete silence … except for two thugs at a table in the corner who had been talking. Another 30 seconds in that vacuum and they looked up too, and found Miss Simone glaring straight at them.

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The Mark of Jazz

From the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia:

From 1965 to 1975, Broadcast Pioneers member Sid Mark hosted a widely acclaimed television show, first carried by Philadelphia’s Channel 17, WPHL-TV and then later aired by WHYY-TV, Channel 12. “The Mark of Jazz” was THE broadcast of that era for jazz.

In an interview with All About Jazz, Sid Mark talked about Nina Simone:

SM: And one of the people I was actually responsible for when it came to her success was Nina Simone.

AAJ: I know that Nina spent some time in Philadelphia.

SM: She started her career in Philadelphia. In her autobiography, she said the reason for her success was a white Jewish disc jockey, Sid Mark. She said, “If I knew him today, I don’t know if I’d kiss him or smack him in the mouth!” (laughter.) That’s a quote. We had a hell of a relationship! By the way, did the tribute concert by her daughter ever take place?

AAJ: It was performed at Town Hall last year. From what I understand, it was extremely successful.

SM: I love that picture of the two of them together.

AAJ: She’s been very active in promoting Nina’s legacy.

SM: Nina was something else. We had hours of discussions on the numerous radio and TV shows we did together. When I discovered her, she was just playing piano at a little joint in Philly at 22nd and Chestnut. It was a bar, and she wasn’t singing, just playing the piano.

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Curtis Institute of Music

The Curtis Institute of Music is a conservatory located in Rittenhouse Square. According to U.S. News & World Report, it has the lowest acceptance rate of any college or university (3.2%), making it the most selective institution of higher education in the United States.

The Institute’s most celebrated rejected applicant is Nina Simone who was denied admission even though she had given classical piano recitals since age 10. Jazz.com reported:

At the age of seventeen, Simone moved to New York to take classes at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. She then moved with her family to Philadelphia, where she auditioned for the city’s prestigious Curtis Institute, a conservatory of classical music.

Simone sought the help of a private instructor to help her audition for the Curtis Institute, but was ultimately denied after a supposedly excellent audition. Simone said she later found out from an insider at Curtis that she was denied entry because she was black. This heightened her anger over the racism which was pervasive in the United States during this period.

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NB: The Curtis Institute awarded Nina Simone an Honorary Doctor in Music and Humanities two days before her death in 2003.

Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Icon

This year marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of Mary Lou Williams. Since 1995, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has paid tribute to the legendary pianist and composer with the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival.

Williams is the subject of a new documentary, Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band. The film premiered on public television on April 1.

Missed it? If you’re in the Philly area, you’re in luck. There will be a screening of the documentary on Tuesday, July 14, at the International House. Hosted by the Scribe Video Center, the screening and conversation with director Carol Bash is co-sponsored by the Leeway Foundation, Philadelphia Jazz Project, Ars Nova Workshop and Reelblack.

Sadly, luck is running out on the Women of Jazz mural, which depicts jazz icons including Williams, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. This cultural asset is on the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s chopping block.

Women of Jazz Mural

On June 1, I provided public comment before the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless, which is chaired by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. I brought to Blackwell’s attention the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish the mural. I made it clear the goal of increasing the availability of affordable housing and preserving the City’s jazz heritage is not mutually exclusive.

COUNCILWOMAN BLACKWELL: Thank you very much. So you’re saying they’re slated to tear down the mural?
MS. ANDERSON: Yes. The Women of Jazz mural at 3200 [block] of Arlington. It will be torn down sometime this year. The date to be determined.
COUNCILWOMAN BLACKWELL: All right. I’m happy to work on that.

The complete transcript is available here. Clap along if you’re happy.

Why Murals Matter

June is Black Music Month. First observed in 1979 at the White House, I’m kicking off the celebration at City Hall where I will offer public comments at a hearing on the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund. Some background.

Last year, the Pennrose Company demolished the John Coltrane mural in Strawberry Mansion. Pennrose has been feeding at the public trough of government subsidies for decades. But in an instant, the company erased a tribute to an American cultural icon.

John Coltrane Collage

While the nation celebrates the centennial of the birth of Billie Holiday and  Mary Lou Williams, the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish the Women of Jazz mural.

Women of Jazz Mural

Now, you might be wondering what is the connection between murals and the affordable housing crisis? Kelvin Jeremiah, President and CEO of PHA, said it best in his remarks before the City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and The Homeless on April 27:

It is my view that the affordable housing crisis that confronts this great city is also an issue of deep-seated structural poverty. … Solving the poverty problem will go a long way to solve the affordable housing crisis.

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. A whopping 40 percent of school-aged children live in poverty. There is a correlation between education and poverty. If the educational achievement of poor children is increased, fewer will end up on PHA’s 10-year waiting list for public housing.

A growing body of evidence shows that students with access to arts education perform better on standardized tests. In addition to improved student achievement, arts education contributes to the development of cognitive and social skills, nurtures a motivation to learn, increases student attendance and fosters a positive school environment. At-risk students cite their participation in the arts as a reason for staying in school.

Students involved in arts instruction report less boredom in school. Ask students why they dropped out of school, they will say they were bored.

The School District of Philadelphia has drastically cut arts and music programs; 25 percent of schools offer no music instruction. In the absence of arts education, murals may be poor students’ only exposure to the arts.

At the opening of the new Whitney Museum, First Lady Michelle Obama said the arts “could inspire a young person to rise above the circumstances of their life and reach for something better.”

Community-based public art inspires young people to reach for their star.

Reach for Your Star

To be clear, it’s not about preserving brick-and-mortar. Instead, it’s about the transformative power of the arts to engage, motivate and keep students in schools.

It’s also not about money. Through digital and mobile technology, a mural can be recreated at a fraction of its original cost. Indeed, the cost of preserving this great city’s cultural heritage would be far less than, say, Pennrose’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.

What Happened, Miss Simone?

The official trailer for the Netflix-produced documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” is now available:

The two minute clip is a veritable bombardment of vintage Nina Simone footage, and suggests the feature will come loaded with amazing scenes of her in concert, before the recording studio’s mic, on tour and in the streets, fighting tirelessly for the justice she so knew to be so necessary. What we’re promised by the trailer is a portrait of the artist as an imperfect woman–a genius musician and freedom fighter chased by terrible demons. Nina Simone was a woman who suffered, in spite of the joy and knowledge she brought to so many around her.

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