Watch Nina Simone’s Flawless Tribute to Johann Sebastian Bach on The Ed Sullivan Show (1960)

Some 80 years ago, in a small North Carolina town, Eunice Waymon, a musically gifted, nine-year-old black girl, began taking piano lessons in the home of an exacting Englishwoman named Muriel Mazzanovich.

At first, young Eunice – the given name of jazz superstar Nina Simone – felt intimidated, recalling in her autobiography, I Put a Spell on You, that they “only played Bach and he seemed so complicated and different:”

In those first lessons, it seemed like the only thing she said was, “You must do it this way, Eunice. Bach would like it this way. Do it again.” And so I would.

As time went on I understood why Mrs. Mazzanovich only allowed me to practice Bach and soon I loved him as much as she did. He is technically perfect… 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.

Her talent, commitment, and progress were such that other citizens of Tryon, North Carolina pitched in to help her afford a summer session at New York City’s famed Juilliard School, prior to auditioning for Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.

“I knew I was good enough, but (the Curtis Institute) turned me down,” she says in the documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? “And it took me about six months to realize it was because I was Black. I never really got over that jolt of racism at the time.”

And yet, she persevered, becoming active in the Civil Rights movement and using the proceeds from her debut album, Little Girl Blue, to further her classical training.

On September 11, 1960, Simone, who had scored a Top 20 hit the previous year with a cover of “I Loves You, Porgy” from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, made her national television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Performing before an all-white studio audience, she paid tribute to both her early training and the genre that would make her a star, imbuing the 1928 jazz standard “Love Me Or Leave Me,” above, with a counterpoint solo in the style of Bach’s Inventions.

It was a skill she had developed during a standing piano gig at Atlantic City’s Midtown Bar and Grill. Its owner demanded that she sing as well as play, and she agreed out of necessity, improvising, experimenting, and occasionally allowing herself flights of classical fancy that did not go unnoticed by local music aficionados.

She prided herself on bringing a classical musician’s absolute concentration to these performances, and expected the audience to abide by a similar code, taking her hands off the keys if a rowdy drunk talked over her, noting that “if they don’t want to listen, I don’t want to play:”

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 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.

Throughout her storied career, she found ways to weave Bach-like fugues and other classical references into her work. Witness her 1987 performance of “My Baby Just Cares For Me” at the Montreux Jazz Festival, below.

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Nina Simone Writes an Admiring Letter to Langston Hughes: “Brother, You’ve Got a Fan Now!” (1966)

Nina Simone’s Live Performances of Her Poignant Civil Rights Protest Songs

Nina Simone Song “Color Is a Beautiful Thing” Animated in a Gorgeous Video

– Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto and Creative, Not Famous Activity Book. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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Comments (14)
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  • John says:

    Wow, what a fascinating article, and in particular what great videos of my favorite jazz singer. I always thought Nina’s pianism was wonderful, but these two videos make me fully appreciate just how great she really was. Thank you so much for producing this, you made my day.

  • Ib Irie says:

    Overlooked but worth noting: Simone’s solo appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1963, the first by a Black woman classical pianist.

  • William walker says:

    Jazz masters special I, enjoyed it
    And she was a very beautiful and
    Special (Lady and greatly loved by
    Many the world over!
    Thanks for this well done piece!
    Best regards
    And thanks for the enlightenment 🙏

  • Fred says:

    She is one of the greatest. We are all so very lucky that she shared her music with us. Nina stands shoulder to shoulder with her teacher, Bach. In my mind she’s just as great, possibly more, because of her huge heart and strength to stand up for a cause, yet continue as a great artist. Thank you Nina. We love you.

  • Christina says:

    Love Nina Simone! Thanks for this!

  • Christina says:

    This is a P.S. to my Nina Simone comment.
    Can you bring some alto sax by the great Paul Desmond! One of my favorites is Take Five. Desmond has so many. Thanks – Christina M.

  • Andy says:

    @Ib Irie
    And Nina Simone wrote in a letter to her parents: “I’m finally in Carnegie Hall, but I’m not playing Bach.”

  • Anita says:

    Miss Nina Simone was one of the greatest artists ever.
    In spirit and love she poured out her heart in her music.
    We are truly blessed to have her legacy live on for other musicians to treasure.
    Long live Nina!!!!!

  • Glenada says:

    The mesmerizing musical guinness of Nina Simone is timeless perfection. Thank you for this beautiful reminder.

  • Kirk somerville says:

    Forbidden fruit. GO Ahead and bite it! I’m sure you’ll be delighted.

  • Yassir Oporta says:

    I love her music and voice, she’s amazing!

  • Samm C says:

    My all time favorite mus-ical magical artist.
    Prejudice kept her from achieving her dream; but it gave the rest of us the gift of her powerful talent.

  • Samm C says:

    My all time favorite mus-ical magical artist.
    Prejudice kept her from achieving her dream; but it gave the rest of us the gift of her powerful talent.

  • Buckjones says:

    I learned something new today. I have new Shero. Thank You Nina

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