Nina Simone (b. Eunice Kathleen Waymon; 1933) is most well known for her contributions to jazz, her activist efforts, and her courage to channel her protests into song, giving voice to many Black Americans during the Civil Rights Movement. Her path to success and the influence she had later in life would not have been possible without her earliest champions, one of whom was her British piano teacher, Muriel Mazzanovich, in Tryon, North Carolina, to whom she referred as “Miss Mazzy”. Through her time with Miss Mazzy, she dreamt “of being the first Black woman classical pianist”1.
Big dreams and incredible talent forged the relationship between Miss Mazzy and Eunice, who started their lessons together in 1939, when Eunice was just 5 years old. Eunice’s mother, Kate Waymon, was employed by Miss Mazzy’s neighbor, Katherine Miller, who was impressed with Eunice’s early piano skills and offered to pay for her piano lessons. Eunice learned tunes by ear, and piano lessons were a way to formalize her education and help her grow in her talent. Miss Mazzy inspired young Eunice to envision a life as a professional classical pianist and where she learned and “developed a lifelong love of Johann Sebastian Bach, Chopin, Brahms, Beethoven and Schubert.”2
Another local, Esther Moore, also helped pay for Eunice’s piano lessons3 after the first year. The Tryon community witnessed Eunice’s talent flourish through regular performances at her mother’s church and around town. At age 11, Miss Mazzy orchestrated a recital, to which only whites were invited, with the exception of Eunice’s parents. While most of the town was fairly integrated, Eunice’s parents were asked to sit in the back of the room. One could say that gesture marked Eunice’s first public experience where she leveraged her talent and voice as an activist. She “announced that if people wanted to hear her play they’d better let her parents sit back down in the front row.”4
The community didn’t waver behind their support of their local prodigy. In 1945, a community fund, the “Eunice Waymon Fund”, was established in Eunice’s honor, allowing her to attend the Allen High School for Girls, a private boarding school for Black girls)5, from which she graduated as valedictorian2. The fund allowed her to continue her education and pursue her passion as a musician and performer. It was in 1955 where she first appeared as Nina Simone and became the legend we know her as today.5 Her 1963 solo headliner debut at Carnegie Hall included a “performance of an instrumental theme on Saint-Saëns’s Samson and Delilah”1, at which “both Miss Mazzy and her parents were in the crowd to see her perform.”3
The path for a young church-organ player Eunice Waymon to become a globally beloved Nina Simone, would not have been possible without the skills taught to her by Miss Mazzy6.
Miss Mazzy ingrained performance formalities in Eunice so that she could be taken seriously as a musician, no matter her age. She organized recitals where neighbors could witness her talent, which led to access and opportunities that Eunice’s family would likely not have been able to afford otherwise.
Give A Note is proud to shine light on this hidden champion who helped guide Nina Simone. A dedicated educator, Miss Mazzy continued to teach piano until her death in 1985 at the age of 102.7 Mrs. Muriel Mazzanovich championed her young student, rallied the community around her, and provided a path for her talent to be recognized by the world. We are grateful for Miss Mazzy and love this brilliant example of the power of music and how it brings people together.
Featured image at top: ‘Mrs. Mazzy’, i.e., Muriel Mazzanovich by Betty Anne Mills Dobbyns (1969). Oil pencil drawing.
Give A Note Foundation was created to bring awareness to the importance of music education and to nurture, grow, and strengthen music education opportunities—for every student, every school, and every community. Because music not only offers students the chance to develop creativity and self-expression, but also builds skills such as communication, collaboration, and critical thinking that are necessary for success.
To learn more about Nina Simone and Miss Mazzy, see our reference articles linked below:
4The New Yorker
7Interview with Ann Mazzanovich
Nina Simone Project
Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, Chapter 3: Miss Mazzy