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Baroque Counterpoint in Early Nina Simone, Little Girl Blue, 1958

Michigan Music Research Conference; March 19, 2016

The purpose of my paper is to transcribe the solos of Nina Simone and study her incorporation of Baroque counterpoint in “Love Me or Leave Me” and “Mood Indigo.” I compare these two songs, found on Simone’s 1958 album, Little Girl Blue, with Johann Sebastian Bach’s Prelude and Fugue no. 18 in G-sharp Minor (BWV 887) from his Well Tempered Clavier, Book II. In my paper, I argue that Simone’s solos oscillate between jazz and baroque idioms, and that more importantly Simone’s contrapuntal sections often contain quartal harmonies and dissonant seconds – elements found more often in Jazz and Blues than in Bach’s writing.

These three examples are well suited for my study because Simone has expressed how much she loved performing Bach in her autobiography and numerous interviews. In addition, the two Simone solos I analyze are both in G- sharp minor and its relative B-major. If Simone were to quote, or incorporate Bach’s music into her own improvisation, she might naturally take material from one of his pieces in the same key. 

This study is important because Simone’s scholars and biographers, like Nadine Cohodas and Ruth Feldstein, often praise Simone’s competence as a classical pianist, but only vaguely mention how her skills became realized in her pop and jazz recordings. Furthermore, I also question how we can begin to reconcile her use of Baroque counterpoint with the more militant views she develops in the 1960s. Dorothy Randall Tsuruta, LaShonda Katrice Barnett, and Tanisha Ford all champion Simone’s Black Nationalist leanings that she develops in the 1960s. How does Nina Simone’s incorporation of Baroque counterpoint alter our understanding of the genre and of Black Nationalism?

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