All this time, I have been writing in this blog about Good Music without being tied down to a specific definition. I haven’t really needed to define “good” music. I just know it when I hear it. All Good Music has some things in common, like standing up to repeated listening, usually being emotionally moving in some way, and having a high level of Quality. That is Quality, with a capital Q, in the Robert Pirsig – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance sense of Quality. (Now stick with me here, don’t sign me up for ECT sessions just yet.) Ultimately, the Quality and Good in Good Music must remain open ended and not tied down any one definition. I contend that taking each piece of music on its own terms, and not asking it to be something it wasn’t trying to be, is one key to recognizing Good Music when you hear it.
I can’t think of too many examples that better demonstrate my notion of Good Music, than the recordings of Eunice Kathleen Waymon. She was better known to the world by her stage name, Nina Simone, and was a one woman musical force of nature. No one knows where to categorize her music. You might find it in the Jazz section, Blues, Soul, Gospel, or Folk sections and none of them would be wrong, but at the same time, she is bigger than any genre or category. As a young person, she was on a path to become a classical concert Pianist! She auditioned for the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, and eventually attended the Juilliard School in New York. Her classical piano chops were evident, at least in a small dose, in this recording of “Love Me or Leave Me”.
To make money to survive and fund her lessons, Nina played piano in a bar and was required by the owner to sing as well. The world owes that guy a big “thank you”, because it gave us one of the most distinctive, sultry voices ever recorded. Another good fortune for the music listening world was the terms of her early recording contract. The recording company gave her complete creative control over the music and what to record, in order to get her to sign. She kept her own eye on what she thought would be popular and sell, but she could take inspiration from wherever she chose without regard to what genre it was supposed to fit in. One of my favorites is her recording of Work Song, which really swings.
There is no way I could ever begin to cover even the highlights of Nina Simone in one blog post. She was a musician of the highest order, a Civil Rights activist, and lived outside of the United States in the later years of her life, ultimately settling in France. Both her autobiography, I Put A Spell On You, and a 2004 biography, Break Down and Let It All Out, are valuable things to read. You would have to spend all day listening to Nina Simone albums to begin to appreciate the wide range of musical influences she mastered. I assure you that each one of her recordings qualify as Good Music. I’ll leave you with one last favorite example of mine.