Nina Simone

Nina Simone

Atlanta Jazz Festival, Chastain Park, Atlanta, GA • May 26, 2000

Dr. Nina Simone may have been helped onstage to kick off the 23rd Atlanta Jazz Festival, but once there, she needed no assistance the rest of night. From her beginnings as a classical pianist to New York jazz club sensation and her emergence as a vocal member of the civil rights movement, Simone has consistently set the standard for musical excellence. Equipped with a beautiful sense of timing on piano coupled with a voice rarely equaled, she had the sold-out crowd in the palm of her hand – which, at Chastain Park’s amphitheater, is a rare event, since most of the crowd is generally more interested in their Brie and wine than whomever is performing.

Opening with a Paul Robeson tune, she moved quickly from George Harrison (“Here Comes the Sun”) to Dylan (“Just Like a Woman”) and Bob Marley. Her own “Mississippi Goddamn” got the crowd worked up and allowed her great band to shine. Lead by guitarist and vibraphonist Alan Schackman, bassist Tony Jones, keyboardist Javier Collados, and percussionists Paul Robinson and Leopoldo Fleming, the group provided flawless backing for Simone’s brilliant piano playing. Her style – an artful mix of R+B, jazz, and classical – is deftly played, leaving great gaps and silences that are as important as the notes she finds.

Simone ended the evening with “My Baby Just Cares For Me,” from her 1954 Little Girl Blue debut – you’d recognize it from TV. But the crowd wasn’t ready to let her go. A section of the folks seated in front began singing a raggedy version of “Young, Gifted and Black,” and she rescued them, hammering out her song that became a defacto anthem in the 1960s.

Since she left the United States in 1974, Simone has rarely performed in this country, which is our loss. Being able to say you’ve experienced Nina Simone live is one of those things you’ll tell your grandchildren.

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