written by Dimitri Tiomkin, Ned Washington 1957
I hate that when I am listening to something like this, and I feel like I have to go back to look everything up. “Who is playing the piano there? Who is on the bass? How did she feel about this song? Who are Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington? Did Johnny Mathis do it better in the original version? What the hell did the David Bowie version sound like?” Maybe it’s the music school in me, but every time I start listening to something with the kind of historical significance of Wild Is the Wind, I feel like I have to have a history book open.
No wonder I started getting turned off to jazz at Berklee. And really, it wasn’t their fault. I showed up with a profound lack of knowledge and respect for great American music. It’s tough to grow up in the USA and not end up this way. No wonder Berklee recruits so many foreign students. Yes, it adds to the prestige of the school, but the foreign students would show up and be years ahead of us in every subject. I remember sitting in Jazz History and the European students knew all the answers. A lot of them would place in later classes beyond classes that I already had a hard time not failing. The most frustrating part of this state of affairs is that the first thing I feel when trying to write about Wild Is the Wind as sung by Nina Simone is stupid. But hell it wasn’t the foreign students’ fault that they knew their shit.
I was walking by 1B (a recital hall in one of the Berklee buildings) and heard a voice in a small ensemble. Berklee was great for this. In between classes, I might be making my way down the hall and I would hear something coming from a room. I’d duck my head in the doorway to see what was going on. In this case it was a tiny Japanese girl singing Wild Is the Wind. She sounded just like Nina Simone. Everyone in the room was sitting there mouths agape. When the song was over she said “Thank you.” in a tiny Japanese voice with an embarrassed smile. It took everyone a minute to remember to clap.
Love is impossible. And love is more than impossible under bad circumstances. It’s also all that you have sometimes. And while I don’t think Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington meant for the song to have overtones of the civil rights movement, Nina Simone has all of that history in her voice. The struggle of millions is this thick soup. Her voice is plaintive without being sappy or overly sentimental. It’s like the evidence of the dispossessed in the intimacy of real love. Not the love that goes out to dinner and brings roses. The love that has no idea what tomorrow will bring.
I don’t know if it’s possible for this kind of subtlety to occur from any contemporary musician. To sing about love and everyone knows damn well that you are singing about the struggle for equality. To be able to perform a song outside of its original context and make it mean something entirely new. This kind of subtlety. This kind of genuine melancholy is gone from popular culture almost entirely.
There is no way to look that up. Nina Simone is like her own movement in history. Somehow she was able to project this rich imagery with her voice. A strong narrative that went beyond her technique and the mere lyrics of a song. She went further into something deeper and personal. An interpretation with significant moral and cultural overtones. Wild Is the Wind indeed.