Guest jazz vocalist honors Nina Simone in UD assembly


Hanna Hornfeld and Vidhatrie Keetha

Accompanied by a four-piece ensemble, jazz vocalist Vanisha Gould celebrated Nina Simone’s life and legacy with original covers of Simone’s music in last Tuesday’s Music Week assembly. Between each performance, Gould discussed Simone’s artistic career and her involvement in the civil rights movement.

The Music Department invited Gould to the school through MusicTalks, an organization that explores history through music, Upper Division Library Department Chair Caroline Bartels said. The ensemble performed “Four Women,” “I Loves You Porgy,” “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “Mississippi Goddam,” and “Feeling Good,” songs Simone first sang in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Music instructor Dr. Amir Khosrowpour said he chose to invite Gould after speaking with his friend, Artistic Director of MusicTalks Elad Kabilio. Khosrowpour asked Kabilio if he knew any musicians who would be interested in giving a presentation for Music Week that connected to the themes of Black History Month. When Kabilio mentioned a tribute to Nina Simone, Khosrowpour and Music Department Chair Timothy Ho loved the idea.

Khosrowpour liked the idea of dedicating an assembly to Simone because he wanted to provide students with an example of an artist who, beyond making beautiful music, had something to say, he said. 

Math teacher Charles Worrall, who used to sing jazz and blues, enjoyed Gould’s performances, which reminded him of his love for live music. “It kind of transports me,” he said. “I spent several moments just closing my eyes and loving the sounds.” 

Dalia Pustilnik (11) also appreciated watching the live show, especially since the rest of this year’s performances were pre-recorded. Viewing the assembly in real time with the rest of the school community felt reminiscent of past years’ Music Weeks, she said. 

Although English teacher Jacob Kaplan enjoyed hearing Gould sing, the Zoom performance also highlighted how different this year’s Music Week was from last year’s, he said. Gould had an impressive voice, but issues with sound quality made it difficult to hear the videos she played, he said. “There’s something about seeing a musical performance in person that really can’t be replicated on the screen,” he said. “That’s such an amazing part of Music Week and I really felt its absence this year.” 

Bartels said the assembly would have been more powerful if Gould and her ensemble had performed in-person because of the challenges presented by technical issues. Since advisory groups were in different locations, it was difficult for Bartels to control factors such as whether or not different groups could hear or see the videos over Zoom. “It’s such a shame she can’t be here in person, because she’s got a pretty extraordinary voice,” Bartels said.

In addition to Gould’s talent for singing, Khosrowpour appreciated her warm and personable demeanor, he said. “Immediately I felt at ease when she was talking,” he said. He particularly loved how Gould alternated between speaking about Simone and showing videos of herself singing with an ensemble. 

Pustilnik also enjoyed the way Gould combined her discussion with musical performances. “It was the perfect mix of education and entertainment,” she said. Before she heard Gould speak, Pustilnik had known very little about Simone. She enjoyed learning that many “iconic” songs, such as “Feeling Good,” had been written by Simone, she said.  

Bailey Hecht (10) was excited to hear Gould’s cover of “Feeling Good,” as well as her cover of “I Loves You Porgy.” “I used to listen to Porgy and Bess with my grandpa when we worked on our summer projects,” she said. “It was one of the first operas that my grandfather taught me about.”

Giselle Paulson (10), who did not know much about Simone prior to the assembly, appreciated that Gould contextualized her performances. “I liked how she discussed the story behind the song, what it meant to her personally, and how she approached the emotional part of it before she played us the video,” Paulson said. “I could really understand and appreciate her performance that way.”

This context was crucial for helping students understand the importance of Simone’s career during the civil rights movement, Bartels said. Gould’s explanation of the song “Mississippi Goddam,” which Simone wrote in response to the 16th Baptist Street Church bombing and the murders of Emmet Till and Medgar Evers, demonstrated how Simone’s music responded to the devastating events that had occurred during her lifetime, Bartels said.

The assembly caused Kaplan to reflect on the intersection between art and politics in general. “All art is political, overtly or not, but it’s cool to see when art is actively engaging in a particular political movement,” he said.

As a singer, Piper Wallace (11) admired Gould’s voice and appreciated that Simone connected music and social issues. She enjoyed learning about the meaning behind many of Simone’s songs, including “Mississippi Goddam.” Wallace had not known much about Simone’s story as an activist and enjoyed learning how the singer’s career began, she said. 

Although Simone is famous for her jazz vocals, Gould said she had originally wanted to be a concert pianist. After Simone was denied admission to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, likely for being Black, she launched her career as a jazz musician at a nightclub in Atlantic City, Gould said. 

Worrall was moved by this story. “She wanted to be a classical musician but she took what was available to her,” he said. “It’s a tragedy that that’s all that was available to her, but it was there and she took it.”

“Because of the color of her skin, Simone just couldn’t get the choices that she would have had, had she been white,” Bartels said. “Vanisha does a really good job recapturing the pathos that is in Nina Simone’s voice when she sings.”

Khosrowpour hopes that students and faculty left the assembly with a deeper appreciation for Simone’s music and ideals, especially if they had not previously known her work. 

Seeing how passionately Simone lived her life inspired Worrall. He found a clip of Simone performing “Young, Gifted and Black” in a high school gymnasium to be particularly powerful because of the clarity of her energy and emotion. 

“There are some people that we should study in history partly for that reason: that they’re just so vitally alive,” Worrall said. “It’s a great reminder in a time when we don’t see a lot of people, that that’s what human beings are like sometimes.”