It was raining lightly. As I ambled somewhat mindlessly around the streets of Zurich, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how clean the place was. Having grown up in Baltimore and being familiar with city life in the mid-Atlantic states of the U.S., the almost pristine character of the Swiss cities always struck me — so different from the lived-in-ness of New York, Philadelphia… This realization was the first of two memories that immediately spring to mind when I think of my first visit there, in late 1976. The second memory is a lot more kinky funny.
Violinist Michal Urbaniak’s music was definitely on the cutting edge of the 1970’s Jazz Fusion movement. As Michal heralded from a classical training in Poland, his music was of a quite demanding character: Its odd-metered rhythmic structures caused me to have to think as well as feel my way through to providing the undercurrents over which he would bow his electric violin. During that first trip with his band, back to a Europe from which I’d returned home just a month earlier, there would unfold many stories…although the tour lasted only a bit more than a month. The band was comprised of Michal, his wife Urszula Dudziak (melodic vocalist, the term singer being somehow insufficient to describe the nature of her unusual craft), Harold Ivory Williams, Jr. (keyboardist extraordinaire), Warren Benbow (drums) and me…with my trusty bass. Sometime within the first couple weeks of the tour, we found our way to Zurich; where we offered a quite sweaty performance in a very clean venue, in this ultra clean city. As I said above, Michal’s music required so much involvement on the part of the rhythm section that I always emerged from the performances drenched, my pores wide open and gasping…
While a few very enthusiastic members of the audience were clamouring around us to offer their thanks for an entertaining evening, a lone black woman made her way toward us — her darkness sticking out boldly against the sea of mostly young European faces. As it turns out, this Black woman was none other than Nina Simone: the legendary American singer, who’d expatriated to Switzerland some years earlier. She’d left the U.S. in disgust with the pace of societal change in response to the Civil Rights effort. Nina hugged and congratulated Warren (the drummer) on his spirited performance. Warren then began to act as liaison, personally introducing Nina to the rest of us; and he went on to tell us that he was once a member of one of Nina’s bands prior to her somewhat abrupt relocation to a more welcoming cultural setting.
Nina invited us (Warren, Harold and me) out to a restaurant; and after quickly packing up my equipment, I soon found myself at a table seated across from Nina Simone — laughing and chatting like the best of old friends. I was immediately comfortable with her, as her song “Young, Gifted and Black” had provided the soundtrack for my early teenage years in Baltimore. Somehow, the setting of the pristine Zurich night added a measure of removal from context that enhanced the comfort level even more.
After the eating and drinking had concluded, and we sat there just making silly, that’s when she sprang it — “I want you three guys to be my band!” A little more chatting ensued, as it seemed she’d given her preceding statement a measure of serious thought. Then she went on to talk about the conditions. “You can live with me. But, I’ll be your only lover! I can cook you eggs and bacon, in the morning…” Although she was smiling eccentrically, she was serious about the conditions, as well. I will forever remember the image formed in my mind, at that moment, of a half-nude Nina Simone turning to say “Breakfast is ready!” We went on to finish the tour with Urbaniak. But, I’ll never forget my dinner with Nina, that night. Although she had escaped the racial strife of her homeland, it was clear that there was a sense of loneliness for her…there in pristine Zurich.
Nina, may you continue to rest in peace; you are forever a part of the smile in my heart!