The earthy vocals of Nina Simone were resurrected when Ozara Ode performed “Ozara in the Key of Nina” honoring the late songstress at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club. With her head covered in a brightly colored gale, bare feet and a free-spirited attitude; it was quite believable that we were witnessing the reincarnation of our late sister. Then it was confirmed when Ode opened her mouth and began singing.
Between mournful tunes like “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and Simone’s breakout single, “I Love You Porgy,” life experiences from the gifted and often controversial musician were shared. Ode talked about the men in Simone’s life, her daughter whom she affectionately referred to as “peanut,” and having to choose between love and perfecting her artistry.
Nina, a classically trained pianist, turned to jazz after her application for admission to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected. This was her first bitter taste of racism.
Nina Simone was greatly affected by what was happening to Black people around the world, especially in the turbulent sixties. She couldn’t keep quiet while her people were being “burned at the stakes.”
Her activism played out in her music. After the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, she wanted to take to the streets to protest. But her husband reminded her that she didn’t know how to use a gun.
Instead, Simone wrote “Mississippi Goddamn.” When Ozara sang this spirited protest song, the outrage reverberated well beyond the walls of the Cotton Club. She received non-stop applause afterwards. Reflecting on the current racial tensions, Ozara said she never wanted this song to be so relevant today.
Ozara also spoke of Nina’s political and social relationships with author James Baldwin, poet Nikki Giovanni and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. With that “devil may care” persona she often flaunted, Ozara revealed Nina was forced to leave the United States due to tax problems she could not handle.
Ozara said Simone wrote so much music and with “one stroke of a pen, signed away millions.” This was her admonition to know what you are signing before putting your signature on the dotted line.
“Strange Fruit” made famous by Bill Holiday, momentarily sobered the audience. Anyone familiar with the lyrics would understand why. Familiar tunes like Jay Hawkin’s “I Put a Spell on You” and Ozara’s rendition of “Four Women” were also very well received. Ozara was totally engaged with the audience as she flowed easily between Nina’s medley of jazz, soul and folk music.
After this mesmerizing performance; I promise, you will not be disappointed if you attend when Ozara returns to the Cotton Club on January 14, 2017.