Thursday, June 7, 2018


Long overdue, but finally this year the remarkable Nina Simone was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I  had the honor of seeing her in concert once in my life,  but that one time changed the way a young  music lover with an unsophisticated 17 year old musical palate listened to music .

Newport Jazz Festival - July 11, 1970

In 1969, the organizers of the long running Newport Jazz Festival decided to change their usual format and sprinkle a few rock acts into what was  normally  a strictly jazz line-up. But by incorporating  bands like Led Zeppelin, Jethro Tull, Sly and The Family Stone, and Ten Years After into the mix, they transformed the  normally  peaceful, calm weekend of mellow  jazz into… well, into a rock festival.
This resulted in a rock-festival-size crowd descending  upon a concert venue not equipped to handle a huge amount of people.With  it  came the standard storming of the gates and tearing down of fences,think Braveheart on hallucinogens,  turning it into a free concert for most of the people -- basically Woodstock without the bad acid, at least no bad-acid warning announcements from the stage.
Needless to say, when 1970 came  around, nary a rock act could be found anywhere in the vicinity of  Rhode Island, but a group of my friends and I decided to roll into Newport anyhow, piling into a rented U-Haul more suited for moving furniture than humans,  two people in the front and the rest of us piled into the windowless back like cargo. It was Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, east coast style, an old rented orange and gray  U-Haul replacing the brightly colored psychedelically  painted magic bus, minus the windows.
Unfortunately although the rock acts were gone, the atmosphere surrounding the concert grounds seemed anything but friendly. There had been reports of fights around what was called Festival Field, and early on Saturday, one of our group had a knife pulled on him.
Our vantage point from the hill overlooking the festival grounds did not exactly seem like a safe zone once the night session of the concert began, and for some reason my feeling was that most of the people around us on that hill were not exactly Herbie Mann fans. Jazz flautist Herbie was second on a three-act bill that also featured Nina Simone, whom I had never heard of in 1970, and  The Ike and Tina Turner revue to close the show.
Whether it was cannabis-fueled paranoia, or anxiety from the events of the day, I was not exactly a picture of serenity when Nina Simone hit the stage. I really just wanted to get back into the windowless U-Haul and head home. On the stage,a solitary figure sat down at the piano and in the next minute, this voice, a voice that I had never heard previously, resonated through the night and into my soul. It was deep and soulful in a way that I couldn't describe -- not a Motown Top 40 Diana Ross kind of a soul or even an Aretha Franklin kind of soul. This seemed different, mesmerizing, it's effect forced me to focus on what seemed from a distance the almost frail figure on stage and as she played, the perceived problems surrounding me melted away. Every note she sang rang so clearly through the quiet night, there was pain in her voice, but a serene calmness as well.There was a depth to this performance that went well beyond anything I had experienced musically at that point of my life.
All of the anxiety and fear were washed away , and somewhere  in the middle of the  set , Nina made sure the night was going to be all right. To this point, I had not recognized any of the songs, but now a few familiar notes from the piano and then Nina was telling me, in the words of a current very popular Top 40 hit, “ooh child, things are going to get easier, ooh child, things will be brighter.”
Amazingly Nina was singing “Ooh Child” by the Five Stairsteps -- such a dichotomy to hear Top 40 coming from that voice, yet the effect of recognizing the song, combined with Nina's transcendent voice, turned the lyrics of that song into a reality, and yes, for this night, even in the darkness, things were easier and things were so much brighter. I will forever be grateful to the amazing Nina Simone for that moment.

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