“I had been warned Nina Simone did not enjoy talking to white people”
Two years ago, I received an email from a woman in Italy named Lilian Terry. Lilian has had a remarkable career in jazz — both as a singer and as an oral historian. Over the years she’s interviewed icons like Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Max Roach and Horace Silver for her national radio show in Italy. She’s held onto her interview archive and turning it into a literary project and possibly an audiobook. I knew we could help shine a light on her collection by creating a Blank on Blank from one of her interviews.
I was immediately drawn to her interview with Nina Simone from 1968. There is something about Nina’s music that still stands apart decades after her death. Plus her tumultuous life continues to draw interest (the recent Netflix documentary was just shortlisted for an Oscar) and she is one of the rare musical artists whose impact straddles both cultural, historical and social justice movements.
Anyway after months of friendly emails, Lilian and her son, Francesco Crosara, finally agreed to let the world hear her interview with Nina Simone that hasn’t been broadcast in nearly 50 years. The backstory on the tape and creating this episode is below.
Backstory of The Tape
Before we listened to the interview, we got to read about Lilian’s Nina Simone interview from her book project: Voices from the Jazz Dimension. It paints a great picture of the scene and how she landed the interview. It was quite the get.
It was 1968 and Lilian was at the Newport Festival. Nina Simone was the one person Lilian always wanted to interview. But she had heard Nina didn’t enjoy speaking with white people. Thankfully Lilian had a confidant in Max Roach, the legendary jazz drummer, who introduced Lilian to Nina.
“Lilian Terry comes from Egypt, ” Roach said. That was true; Lilian was born in Cairo to a father from Malta and a mother from Italy.
With that simple introduction, Nina waved Lilian over. Soon they were talking about Nefertiti and the pharaohs. Nina even told Lilian she thought she’d been in Egypt in a previous life.
A few days later Lilian went to Nina’s house in Mt. Vernon, New York. They sat by the pool, the tape recorder was turned on, and the conversation continued.
Audio Editing & The Score
This was such a tough interview to edit, namely because there was such an array of great stuff that they covered while sitting in Nina’s backyard. In the end, we liked the idea of touching on three interesting aspects of her life and career: the role of fashion and style in her on stage persona, her connection with her then young daughter, and how the civil rights movement–and death of Martin Luther King, Jr.–impacted her music and the future she saw for her 5-year old.
The entire tape is a great listen, just two women sitting down, bouncing from topic to topic. Hopefully Lilian will release the tape in some format in the months to come. You can hear some bonus outtakes from the interview that didn’t make it into the animated episode, in our podcast.
When we kickstarted production of the Nina Simone episode, we paid special attention to her distinct style and presence as we watched old concert performances and poured through photos of her both on and off stage. Here are some of Pat Smith’s early sketches:
“One thing I kept seeing in some classic photos of Nina was this distinct Egyptian influence to her style. The way she wore her eye makeup. As we worked on the character design for Nina, a couple of features stood out: the head scarf she often wore, the eye makeup, and just this strong, feminine, powerful force. We noted the inflections in her speech. It was a touch fancy and beautiful. She wouldn’t be one to slouch. She was classy.”
— Director, Pat Smith
Some of Pat’s early brainstorm with the script in hand: