Did Curtis reject Nina Simone over race?

Did Curtis reject Nina Simone over race?


norman lebrecht

August 18, 2015

Peter Dobrin has been looking at this oft-repeated claim, lately re-aired on a Netflix doc.

His evidence suggests they didn’t like the way she played piano.

According to documents in the school’s archive, Curtis had 72 applicants for the piano department; three were accepted, which means there were more than five dozen other pianists, most presumably white, whose best also was not good enough for Curtis.

nina simone

Read for yourselves here.


  • Vocalise says:

    Van Cliburn was rejected from Curtis. Was that because he was from Texas?

  • Mark Shulgasser says:

    What a terrible loss it would be if Nina Simone had been roped into the concert pianist track. She would have been merely one more, marketed for the blunt distinction of being black and female, and might never have become the unique figure she became. Turning this history into some sort of accusation against the Curtis is just PC run amok. Curtis might be commended for discernment and resistance to the pressure to be ‘diverse’.

    • MWnyc says:

      “Turning this history into some sort of accusation against the Curtis is just PC run amok.”

      Except that Nina Simone herself made the accusation decades before the term “PC” became popular.

      She repeated the accusation – and openly acknowledged that she was bitter (her word) about it – for her entire adult life. That’s how it became commonly accepted lore.

      Peter Dobrin and the Inquirer didn’t just come up with this out of nowhere.

    • ruben greenberg says:

      I find this comment really to the point. I would far prefer to have a unique, creative force like Nina Simone the jazz singer and pianist than just another concert pianist playing the same old tired repertory. Her failure to get into Curtis must have been frustrating and heart-breaking for her, but it was our gain.

  • Gary says:

    “His evidence suggests they didn’t like the way she played piano.”

    So they had no taste. That’s even worse than an accusation of racism.

  • RedFever says:

    Curtis Institute never has more than a handful of openings for any instrument – and sometimes only 1 opening — so many worthy talents get turned down, simply because there’s no opening for them. And remember, Nina didn’t apply to Curtis to be “Nina Simone” – she applied to be a concert pianist, so it’s quite possible that indeed she didn’t make the grade.

  • David Couch says:

    “His evidence suggests they didn’t like the way she played piano.”

    This interpretation is a great exaggeration and entirely uncalled for! Curtis has long been among the most selective institutions of higher learning in the US — more selective than Harvard, for example. You can be great and not be accepted. Peter Dobrin found that 69 of 72 applicants when Nina Simone applied were not accepted, not necessarily because “they didn’t like the way [they] played piano”! He phrased it as because “[s]he wasn’t good enough at that point in her development, she simply did not make the cut.” Only 3 of 72 “made the cut.” Not the same thing as not being liked.

  • David Couch says:

    Further explanation that her playing was not necessarily “disliked” by the jury — Peter Dobrin wrote that after she “didn’t make the cut”… “[Curtis piano faculty member] Vladimir Sokoloff became her teacher, following a pattern that continues at the school today. When a promising musician fails to get into Curtis but a teacher believes acceptance is within striking distance, that teacher sometimes agrees to private lessons to prepare for another audition.

    “Simone studied with Sokoloff for several years with this plan in mind. But Curtis had age limits at the time, and when Simone turned 21, her Curtis ambition evaporated.”

  • Only Objective Observer says:

    Everybody is somehow so sure that it was for any reason but racism.
    I suspect motivated reasoning on part of those who weren’t there, yet seem to know better than nina…
    If your need to keep your image of a just world alive lowers you so much to tell a black woman that a case of racism was only imagined – gaslighting her- you need to take a look into the mirror and admit YOU are one of the bad guys.

    Sucks to be you 🙂

  • rol g says:

    They probably were racists but providence made her into the star she became instead of a mere concert pianist.