When Lisa Celeste Kelly, who performs under the stage name Simone, told her mother, internationally known vocalist and pianist Nina Simone, that she wanted to follow the same artistic path, ”Mommy” was not pleased.Simone suspects there might have been some jealousy involved and perhaps a touch of the insecurity that tends to afflict the artistic. ”Mommy,” as Simone still refers to her mother, might also have been trying to protect her only daughter from the same kind of indignities she suffered — Nina Simone, who died in 2003, believed the recording industry took unfair advantage of her and her talents.But at these moments of potential conflict, the daughter reassured her mother. ”I always told her that she was the gateway through which I would walk to achieve my superstardom. At the time, I had no idea how true that would be,” says Simone , who now lives near Stroudsburg.On Saturday, on the second day of the VF Outlet Berks Jazz Festival, Simone’s artistic connection with her mother takes an important turn. In the intimate setting of Gerald Veasley’s Jazz Bass, a 110-seat club in the Sheraton Reading Hotel, she will perform many of the tunes associated with her mother in what will be her first public performance with a big band. Whitehall
Township resident Rob Stoneback, the trombonist and composer, leads the 17-piece group, which includes many Lehigh Valley musicians.In May, Simone will release her debut recording, ”Simone on Simone,” which explores her mother’s legacy and Simone’s interpretation of it. Grammy Award-winner Bob Belden produced the CD, which was recorded at Star City, a Bethlehem Township
A slightly smaller seven-piece group, with Stoneback as musical director and including some of the same Lehigh Valley musicians, will also tour with Simone, promoting the recording. Stops include the JVC Jazz Festival and Colorado‘s Telluride Jazz Festival, both in June, as well as dates in Chicago.
Simone is no stranger to performing. She sang the lead in Broadway’s ”Aida” and appeared in ”Rent.” For the last 18 months, she has performed her mother’s music in selected concerts, including Philadelphia‘s World Cafe, Manhattan’s Town Hall and the Deer Head Inn in Delaware Water Gap.
Still, the CD release and the performances supporting it mark an important step for Simone, who wants to honor her roots and her mother’s accomplishments before she pursues other music in her career.
”Sometimes, I felt like I made the mistake of growing up,” Simone says recently by telephone from her Poconos-area home. ”As I got older, I would sometimes use my ‘little girl’ voice and Mommy always responded in a caring, nurturing way. But as I became a woman, in my opinion, she couldn’t help but think I was trying to compete with her. It took me a few times, but I had to tell her that I revered her, and how much of a fan I was of her music, and that I was simply trying to carry on the legacy.”
A turning point in the mother-daughter relationship occurred when the pair worked informally in a Chicago studio in 1999, when Simone was visiting her mother.
”I proceeded to give her all my favorite Nina Simone songs,” says Simone. ”We sat down and sang together and shared that time. Then we did ‘Music For Lovers’ and she was so surprised. She was so moved by how I did that song that she invited me to sing that song with her [in performance]. Who was I to decline?”
The first cut on her debut CD is a duet featuring mother and daughter, recorded in 1999 in Dublin where they sang ”Music For Lovers,” a tune strongly associated with Nina Simone’s career.
By her own admission, Simone is entering the musical game a little late. At 45, she is at least two decades beyond the 20-something age record companies prefer to promote. She also spent more than 10 years in the Air Force, serving mostly in Germany, where she worked as a civil engineer.
As the only child, Simone also had responsibilities for her mother’s care near the end of her life, responsibilities that also delayed her own career.
”I’m a prolific songwriter. I’ve been writing for 17 years,” says Simone. ”But one of the things that God has taught me is patience. I’ve been trying to get my first CD out for a while. The last time, it was very close to happening, but I had to choose between my duty or my dream. In that case, duty came first.”
During her care for her mother, in the final years of her life, that another critical event occurred. On a visit to her mother’s California condominium, her mother gave Simone 50 arrangements of music Nina Simone had recorded and performed.
”When we get to a certain age, we realize we’re not going to live forever and we start preparing,” Simone says. ”One day, she just opened up a closet in the condo and viola , there they were. I’m just glad they were there and she gave them to me. After she died, everything became clear.”
In honoring her mother’s legacy, Simone taps into a rich reservoir of interest. In the years since her death, Nina Simone remains a cultural icon, with a devoted following, especially in the New York City area and in parts of Europe. Several high-profile Hollywood films have used her music, and contemporary musicians, including Jeff Buckley (”If I Knew”) and Feist (”Sea Lion Woman”) have covered her material.
Nina Simone was also very outspoken and, at times, controversial.
During the turbulent 1960s, she supported the civil rights movement and wrote one of her most impassioned pieces, ” Mississippi Goddam!” following the 1963 murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the deaths of four black school children in Alabama that same year.
”After she recorded ‘Mississippi Goddam!’ she started speaking out from the stage to support the civil rights movement and her people,” says Simone. ”When those four little girls were blown up, mommy told me she just lost it. People were not cursing on records at that time and, of all things, they weren’t including the word ‘God’ with the word ‘damn’ if they did. She was going against the grain. After that, she recorded ‘Old Jim Crow’ and ‘Four Women’ and ‘ Turning Point‘ and ‘Young, Gifted and Black.’ She found her niche, and she merged the world of music with, I don’t want to say politics, but I guess the civil rights movement. She believed she was able to speak out and make a difference.”
Disgusted with race relations in the country and the Vietnam War, Nina Simone left the United States in 1969, living in Liberia, the Barbados, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and the United Kingdom. She eventually returned to the U.S., but was briefly arrested for not paying income taxes, her protest against U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
Stoneback, Simone’s musical director, who worked Nina Simone’s arrangements, said some were complete and others were sketches. Stoneback’s tenor saxophonist, Ken Moyer, arranged the music for both Stoneback’s big band and his smaller ensemble.
The original arrangements included tunes associated with Nina Simone’s career, including ”Black Is the Color Of My True Love’s Hair,” and ”Feeling Good,” which both appear on the new recording.