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.

Relat­ed Con­tent 

How Nina Simone Became Hip Hop’s “Secret Weapon”: From Lau­ryn Hill to Jay Z and Kanye West

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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