For her third concert as a headliner at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s Jazz Depot, popular vocalist Cynthia Simmons is stepping out into a whole new place.
“The last two shows I did were my own,” she explains. “All I had to do was go out and sing songs I liked to sing. This one is the first time for me to have an artist—who is one of the jazz greats—and a theme.”
The idea for a show featuring the music of iconic performer and composer Nina Simone came about several months ago, Simmons says, during a conversation with Jazz Hall CEO Jason McIntosh.
“Jason said, `You know, we should do a Nina Simone concert, and I think you should produce it,’” she recalls with a chuckle. “And I said, `yes.’ I was familiar with a lot of her tunes, especially some of the later things, and I also knew her from her activist years in the civil rights movement.”
“The best way to understand the impact and musical legacy of someone like Simone is to both listen to and feel her music,” said McIntosh. “Cynthia has the musical depth and range needed to honor such an incredible cultural force.”
Now, however, after much research and study, she’s found out a lot more about the influential singer-songwriter-pianist.
“I’ve learned a great deal about her and what she did, how she came to be a jazz singer,” says Simmons. “Before, I did not know that she was a classically trained pianist. I also found an interview in which she talked about writing `Mississippi Goddam’ – which I probably won’t be singing at the tribute. She explained why she wrote it, and as you listen to her, you can hear how passionate she was about the injustices that black people were suffering then[in 1964]. She had wanted to be a classical pianist, but because of her race she was denied entrance to some music schools.”
Born Eunice Kathleen Wayman in North Carolina in 1933, Simone changed her name, according to Simmons, “to hide from her mother that she was singing in clubs.”
In 1958, her biggest pop-music hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” from the Gershwin musical Porgy & Bess, was released by Bethlehem Records. It climbed into the Top 20 on the Billboard Magazine charts, which led to a contract with a bigger label and more visibility as a performer and recording artist.
Although she never had another Top 40 hit, Simone recorded dozens of albums and became a popular performer, as well as an increasingly active participant in the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Her albums and live shows drew from a variety of sources, including blues, R&B, gospel, jazz, and the classical music that had begun captivating her as a child.
In 2003, Simone died of cancer in her adopted country of France, where she had been living and working for the preceding decade. Her final studio album, A Single Woman, had been released by Elektra Records 10 years earlier.
Along the way, she wrote and/or popularized a number of songs, including “Feeling Good,” “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and “I Put A Spell on You.” Simmons feels that those last two numbers are especially important to have in the tribute concert, for which she’ll be backed by Jazz Depot stalwarts Steven Schrag on piano, Jordan Hehl on bass, and Nicholas Foster on drums.
“Whenever I say `Nina Simone,’ people always come back with, `My Baby Just Cares for Me,’” says Simmons. “So I’m going to have to do that one, and `I Put A Spell on You,’ which is so identified with her.
“The show will have a chronological structure,” she adds. “We’ll start out with classical jazz tunes, telling a little bit about her as we go, then songs from the civil rights era, and finish with more of her pop tunes, which came later in her life – they were pop songs, but she always put her own spin on them. I’m going to let Steven and the boys do a couple of musical numbers of hers, too, because she was such a wonderful pianist.”
Of course, Simone was a wonderful singer as well, with a distinctive, low-register voice. That’s something the producer and star of Sunday’s show not only appreciates, but also welcomes.
“Nina Simone is very much a contralto, and that’s nice,” says Simmons. “Her songs are nice and comfortable for me to sing.”
The Nina Simone Tribute Concert is set to begin at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, March 17, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets can be purchased at the Depot or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5. Refreshments will be available for purchase.
The performance is a part of the Jazz Hall’s Spring Concert Series.
The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.