Alan Light, a veteran music journalist, and former editor of Vibe and Spin magazines, has produced a quite compelling biography of the singer and pianist, Nina Simone, that will leave you wanting to buy more of her music, and investigate further.
The book claims to have been inspired by the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary, which was equally fascinating – and highly recommended. It is an ‘official’ biography, part copyrighted to the Nina Simone estate. In many cases, that can send a warning signal, suggesting a watered-down version of the truth, but to the credit of the estate, they appear to have given Light good access to original material, including her diaries, and a free reign.
Singer Barb Jungr, who recently recorded the lovely Hymn For Nina, expressed concerns that many writers have blamed Simone’s sometimes eccentric behaviour on illness, typically citing possible bipolar disorder, rather than her anger about the way in which she, her family, and African-American people were treated in mid-Twentieth Century America. To his credit, Light analyses these elements from all angles, highlighting the many injustices she faced – some real, some perhaps misplaced – but also suggesting that there were some signs of illness in the family too, citing her father’s quirky behaviour.
Simone’s role in the Civil Rights movement is also discussed in depth, shedding new light on her involvement, and the damage it inflicted on both her marriage and her career.
That’s not to say this biography does not have its weaknesses. Light focuses more attention on her fascinating life story, but this is occasionally at the expense of her music, and I would like to have seen more analysis of her best recordings – particularly the fine albums she made for Philips in the mid-1960s. In addition, whilst Light was clearly given good access to original material, he seems to have carried out few interviews of his own, replying heavily on second-hand interviews by others.
But these are minor complaints. This is a quite amazing, and often harrowing story, and Light succeeds in painting a balanced portrait of this unique artist. This is one of the best jazz biographies I’ve read in some time. Highly recommended.