Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Sitting in First Class with Nina Simone

It was 1996 and I was on tour with Koko Taylor, Kenny Neal, and Lonnie Brooks in Europe. One day we all boarded a plane in Marseilles, France to fly to Paris. I noticed a regal, older African woman in traditional dress made from beautiful indigo blue fabric and head wrap  sitting in first class as I made my way back to my seat in coach. She had a strong spiritual force about her that I could feel.  When I got in the back of the plane there were no seats left. Just then a flight attendant tells me that there is only one seat left in the plane but it is in first class...and it is next to Nina Simone! The flight attendant says she would have to ask Ms. Simone if it would be alright.  So we walked back up to first class and the flight attendant explained the situation to her.  Her reply: "It depends on how charming you are." She smiled at me and I was a little bit in shock. It turns out that she was the royal elder that I sighted upon boarding. I sat down and it was immediately like family.  We drank orange juice together and for the next hour and a half she told me stories about being the only sister in Julliard way back in the fifties and the struggles she went through to gain respect. She said that she practiced so hard to become a great pianist.  She talked about knowing Michael Jackson (she could impersonate his voice very well) when he was a little boy and her family roots in South Carolina. Her daddy was Gullah ('geechee').  She was funny, warm, beautiful, loud, charming and was not afraid to curse out loud or sing when the story required it. She was down.  She was real.   She had been living near Marseilles, France and was on her way back to the States to visit her brother in New York. The most amazing thing about this encounter is that when we were about to land in Paris we came very close to hitting another plane that was taking off from the same runway. I looked out the window and could see the other plane directly below us.  It was close!  Our plane's pilot had to make a sharp turn and a steep climb to avoid a disaster. Everybody, even the flight attendants looked scared shitless. Not Mama Nina...she kept talking to me like we were sitting in the park on a sunny day. She ain't skip a beat! I will always remember our Black Empress of song...Nina Simone. Respect!


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