ROCKS AND ROLES
TWO STORIES FROM LAST WEEK
NINA SIMONE pianist, singer and activist
NINA SIMONE’S CHILDHOOD HOME
Two piano players came to my attention last week. The first was Nina Simone. The New York Times printed a story about preserving pianist and singer Nina Simone’s birthplace in Tryon, North Carolina. Tryon is an idyllic village in a beautiful mountain setting. I was familiar with Tryon as I have visited a Detroit artist friend who has moved there. It is so beautiful that it is a magnet for artists. Nina Simone’s life growing up in Tryon is essential in understanding Nina. In Tryon she learned the piano and the necessity to stand up to injustice. She learned her lessons well. Three artists have purchased her childhood home with the promise to honor her life.
GRETCHEN VALADE, pianist and proprietor
Gretchen Valade ,the proprietor of the Dirty Dog, was missing, Her place at the Dirty Dog bar has been empty for the past couple of weeks. She was sick, and she will get better. If you know Gretchen, you know that she doesn’t miss the music without a good reason. If you know the people who know Gretchen, you know how much she matters to all those around her. The phrase that I heard repeatedly was “She will be OK … she’s just too tough to be knocked down for long”. A cold is not an equivalence of the struggle that Nina Simone faced. However, our confidence in their strength that comes from their bearing gives us reassurance. Their achievements required their firm resilience.
Two lives could hardly be more different than Gretchen Valade’s and Nina Simone’s except for playing the piano. I realized that Nina Simone and Gretchen Valade share an inner fortitude that we all recognize. Neither of these two ladies backed down when expressing their views. Could it be that music and jazz gave them the structure that gave them such self assurance.
I am often personally kind of squishy, sort of, maybe wishy-washy. I am careful not to offend. Sometime I stand up for my principles, but I make sure that no one is around to call me out.
There are others whom I admire like Gretchen and Nina that only know how to stand up. I don’t always agree with them on what they are standing up for, but I am going to take them seriously. I will in the end admire them for their surety.
STRENGTH OF CHARACTER – SPEAKING OUT
I just saw “I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO” . Using James Baldwin’s life and words this film grabs and shakes one into more understanding. The film was nominated for an Academy Award.
I got a chance a few years ago to see the documentary THE AMAZING NINA SIMONE by Jeff Lieberman. The film was a well crafted and insightful look at Nina Simone, whose powerful life and gifts again startled me out of complacency.
These movies demonstrates the power of documentary film to get to the bottom of things.
THE POWER OF THE JAZZ ARTIST NINA SIMONE
Ta-Nehisi Coates stated in The Atlantic :
I played a lot of Nina Simone in college. I play a lot of Nina Simone now. But I have always known that Nina Simone means something more to the black women around me than she does to me.
Simone was able to conjure glamour in spite of everything the world said about black women who looked like her. And for that she enjoyed a special place in the pantheon of resistance. That fact doesn’t just have to do with her lyrics or her musicianship, but also how she looked. Simone is something more than a female Bob Marley. It is not simply the voice: It is the world that made that voice, all the hurt and pain of denigration, forged into something otherworldly. That voice, inevitably, calls us to look at Nina Simone’s face, and for a brief moment, understand that the hate we felt, that the mockery we dispensed, was unnatural, was the fruit of conjurations and the shadow of plunder. We look at Nina Simone’s face and the lie is exposed and we are shamed. We look at Nina Simone’s face and a terrible truth comes into view—there was nothing wrong with her. But there is something deeply wrong with us.
STRONG CHARACTER, VISION AND JAZZ
Ta-Nehisi Coates tells us of the importance of seeing the “face’ of an artist. When we listen to music without the visual impression we are missing something. When we get a chance to be in the presence of an artist when they are creating we get to see their self assurance. Jazz takes a lot of confidence to play. Watch it played live ! Get the whole story.
A MAN OF STRONG CHARACTER
COMING TO THE DIRTY DOG JAZZ CAFÉ
RODNEY WHITAKER MARCH 08-MARCH 11
I have known Rodney Whitaker since he was a young man earnestly starting out on his storied career. There is little that Rodney has set out to do that he hasn’t achieved. He is someone whose personal fortitude has made all around him better, just ask his students that come out of his program at Michigan State or better yet ask his band mates when you catch him at the Dirty Dog this week.
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