Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall
Nina Simone had performed at Carnegie Hall twice before her headlining debut on April 12, 1963. She made her debut appearance with friend and fellow civil rights activist Miriam Makeba two years earlier, but the timing of her first solo concert at the Hall proved to be an axis on which her artistry began to turn toward the passionate protest music and political anger for which she became known.
Simone’s one-time husband and manager Andrew Stroud recalled her unshakable determination to make a solo appearance at Carnegie Hall, motivated by her childhood dream of being the first Black woman classical pianist (Simone was a piano prodigy as a child). Her pianism is on display in the 1963 debut with a performance of an instrumental theme on Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah,
Yet Simone was destined to marry art and activism. Her 1963 solo debut at the Hall coincidentally took place on the same day Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and jailed with a group of protestors in Birmingham—and 1963 was the year Simone began to craft protest songs in earnest, spurred on by the March on Washington, and persistent violence against Black civilians and protestors in the South. A year after her solo debut, on March 22, 1964, she gave a historic rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” at the Hall—a far cry from Saint-Saëns. Halfway through the performance of this bright-burning, anger-fueled “showtune,” as she ironically called it, she joked to the mostly white audience, “Bet you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?”
The very different 1963 and 1964 concerts form a vivid portrait of an artist at a turning point in her music, her voice, and the progression of the Civil Rights Movement in which she would come to play such a luminous role. To hear her sing live is to hear all of this. An advertisement for the 1963 concert reprints a loving prose poem by Langston Hughes, who originally penned it as an open fan letter to Simone after hearing her debut album. He writes: “The letters l-i-v-e that spell LIVE mean exactly the same as the letters N-i-n-a that spell NINA. As for that word SIMONE—be cool, Jack, be cool!”
Images courtesy of the Carnegie Hall Archives.