The enduring image of Nina Simone is one of a sharp, radical, no-nonsense artist. But on stage at the Montreux Jazz festival in 1976, dressed in a form-fitting black dress with her hair cropped short, Simone cut a different figure from the one for which she is remembered. The piano virtuoso, who usually kept audiences eating out of the palm of her hand, seemed skittish and disoriented.
Set along the shores of picturesque Lac Léman, Montreux Jazz is a glitzy affair in one of the world’s most expensive countries. Simone performed at the festival several times between 1968 and 1990, but by the time she got to Switzerland in 1976, she was broke. She had left her husband and the United States in the early 70s, worn out by an abusive marriage, the loss of great friends including Lorraine Hansberry and Langston Hughes, the toll of the civil rights fight and the career consequences of prioritising activism in her music over radio-friendly fare.
She went to Liberia, where she found romance and fulfilment, but her career and finances fell apart. To make money, she tried her luck in Switzerland instead of returning to the US. The Montreux show was, at its core, a business decision.
Rumours have swirled about what her life looked like when she arrived in Switzerland in 76; the move must have been destabilising, a dramatic change from the life she had in Liberia. A certain unease was clear from the moment she flitted awkwardly on to the stage at Montreux Casino, and what followed was a series of contradictions and eccentricities.
Simone seemed shaky at times, standing next to her piano and steadying herself while staring blankly out into the crowd; a few minutes later she was solid, crouching in a squat in high heels and holding a prayer pose. Her repartee with the audience betrayed shyness and vulnerability, and a wish to win the spectators over. Then she told them that she was writing a new song but they weren’t worthy of hearing it.
Watching it now, it’s hard to glean exactly what Simone had in her heart; she tries to externalise her inner monologues but never quite gets it right. Her song choice suggests that she had moved away from the protest music that defined her career in the 60s, although she kept in a few concert staples: Backlash Blues, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, Be My Husband and the opener Little Girl Blue, a throwback to her first album.
When her own words failed her, she looked to other singers for lyrics to convey what she couldn’t quite express. In the most affecting part of the performance, Simone covered Janis Ian’s Stars, a sombre tune about artists past their prime (“Some of us are downed / Some of us are crowned / And some are lost / And never found”). This part of the performance did, however, contain a classic example of Simone’s verve, when she admonished a concertgoer for trying to leave the casino hall before the song was over. “Hey girl, sit down. Sit down! Sit down!”
From Stars, Simone moved to a rousing cover of Morris Albert’s Feelings, giving the often-mocked tune a new shine. Her rendition is padded by off-the-cuff rhapsodising that extends to 10 minutes, mimicking the freestyle nature of the church revivals that she attended as a child with her mother. Yet she brings depth to an otherwise simple song, the emotion written on her face and thrashed out on the keys.
Simone’s prowess on the piano and her exceptional baritone were intact, but the 76 Montreux show can be difficult to watch. She tried her hardest to coax energy and applause out of a tough and conservative Swiss audience, using unpredictable methods. She’s tired and sad and it’s an unsteady step back into the limelight. But you root for her earnestness, honesty, vulnerability and superior talent – and she wins you over because she’s unforgettable.