Curtis Institute and the case of Nina Simone

Music Rock Hall
FILE - In this June 27, 1985, file photo, Nina Simone performs at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. Simone will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on April 14, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. The jazzy and soulful Simone, who died in 2003, was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and influenced the likes of Alicia Keys and Aretha Franklin. (AP Photo/Rene Perez, File)

It's one of those stories that has lodged in the minds of many for its injustice and irony. Nina Simone - before she was Nina Simone, when she was still an aspiring classical pianist named Eunice Waymon - auditioned for the Curtis Institute of Music and was rejected on grounds of her race.

The tale bubbles up every few years, refracted through the times, as it is doing again in our era of Ferguson and Sandra Bland. Simone herself recounted the story repeatedly during her lifetime. "I was rejected because I was black," she told The Inquirer in 1993, adding with some relish that, since then, her name had grown "bigger than the whole Curtis Institute."

Indeed. The Curtis rejection, painful as it was, became a catalyst. It caused Eunice Waymon to find her voice, literally and figuratively, and to become Nina Simone.

Most recently, the Curtis story was relayed in a Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? by Liz Garbus, where it jars and stings. Institutional racism of the 1950s went largely unchecked, and, intuitively, it makes sense that Curtis - elite, Old World, classical - was just one more whites-only club doing what whites-only clubs did. Another Nina Simone documentary, a biopic, and a biography are on the way, raising the likelihood that Curtis' cameos are not over.

Certainly, racism exists as a spectrum - overt, cloaked, unconscious, internalized - and no one can know what motivated the Curtis piano faculty to listen to what must have been an extremely compelling audition on April 7, 1951, and then turn away one of the 20th century's major musical figures.

But the truth is more likely something far more common and less interesting: She wasn't good enough. On piano, that day, at that point in her development, she simply did not make the cut.

Most available evidence favors this view. Among music conservatories, Curtis, because of its small size and because it is free, has always drawn many applicants for few spots. That year, according to documents in the school's archive, Curtis had 72 applicants for the piano department; three were accepted, which means there were more than five dozen other pianists, most presumably white, whose best also was not good enough for Curtis.

Of course, this hardly disproves racism. But there's stronger evidence still. Curtis had admitted African American students long before 1951. George Walker graduated in 1945, earning degrees in both composition and piano (and, in 1996, winning the Pulitzer Prize), and he wasn't the first. An African American pianist named Russell Johnson graduated from Curtis in 1928, four years after the school's founding.

As Simone was taking her audition to become what she called the first black classical music pianist in America, Curtis in fact already had an African American female student in the piano department. Blanche Burton-Lyles entered Curtis in 1944 at age 11, and graduated in 1954 - nearly the exact time Simone would have been there.

The late Curtis piano faculty member Vladimir Sokoloff, who was probably as familiar as anyone with the inner workings of the school, refuted the idea that race was a factor. "Oh, no, it had nothing to do with her color or her background," Sokoloff told reporters for a 1992 French documentary, as repeated in Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, Nadine Cohodas' Simone biography.

His widow, Eleanor Sokoloff, who has taught piano at Curtis since 1936, says she also does not believe race was a factor in the rejection. "Believe me, it had nothing to do with her skin color," she says. "Curtis has never been that way. Our attitude is completely to take the best. That's always been what we did."

But Simone always believed it was racism. Her brother Carrol had heard as much from their well-connected uncle Walter, according to the Cohodas biography. Is it possible?

"We'll never know," says Salamishah Tillet, a University of Pennsylvania associate professor of English at work on a Nina Simone biography. "I do think the standard for an African American woman at that time would have been different than it would have been for a white male musician. So it was hard to detect any racial bias. None of us go into these things unmarked by our social categories."

Paul Bryan, Curtis' dean of faculty and students, makes the point that Curtis founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok also founded the Settlement Music School. "Curtis was her attempt to give the really remarkable students from Settlement an opportunity to go somewhere and continue their studies at an extremely high level," says Bryan.

"The thought with Curtis was always from its inception looking at the community as a whole, and the community served by Settlement was also I think the community Mary Louise Curtis Bok assumed Curtis would serve, and seeing that an African American graduated in one of the first graduating classes points in that direction."

Bryan says there is no one alive today who was on the piano jury that heard Simone's audition, and faculty were not required to turn over any audition notes to Curtis.

If Simone left her audition with a 'no,' it was not the same kind of 'no' others got. Vladimir Sokoloff became her teacher, following a pattern that continues at the school today. When a promising musician fails to get into Curtis but a teacher believes acceptance is within striking distance, that teacher sometimes agrees to private lessons to prepare for another audition.

Simone studied with Sokoloff for several years with this plan in mind. But Curtis had age limits at the time, and when Simone turned 21, her Curtis ambition evaporated. (The school dropped age limits in 2008.)

Curtis eventually did award Simone a degree. In 2003, the Philadelphia Congress of the National Congress for Black Women decided to give Simone an award and invited Curtis to do the same. Curtis agreed. "Honoris causa," reads her diploma, "in recognition of her contribution to the art of music."

It was a significant gesture from one art form to another, particularly as, by 2003, the tables had turned. The ultimate achievement in Simone's mind was to make it in classical. "I never really got over that jolt of racism at the time," Simone said of her Curtis rejection in What Happened, Miss Simone?, a claim that goes curiously unchallenged in the documentary.

Simone arrived on the scene just as the accepted hierarchy of culture was flattening to accommodate rock, jazz, world music, and the panoply it would become. By the end of Simone's career, classical had moved to the fringe. Simone today represents the establishment - "bigger than the whole Curtis Institute," a winning audition or no.


pdobrin@phillynews.com

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