What Happened at Trois Mailletz, Miss Simone? (Part 1)
Nina Simone, the legendary jazz artist and pianist, found refuge at the Trois Mailletz entertainment club in Paris during a troubling time of her career, despite damning reports to the contrary. Simone went from rags to riches in the USA and back to rags in Paris, where Trois Mailletz owner/director Jacques Boni saved her career and possibly her life.
The legendary Nina Simone – the subject of three current movies all being released in 2015 – is the most famous performer so far to grace the stage of Trois Mailletz during owner/director Jacques Boni’s tenure at the storied underground entertainment club in the Latin Quarter of Paris. Trois Mailletz came into Simone’s life at a low point of her career, providing her with much needed refuge and support, before she regained her popularity later on.
Simone is a famous jazz musician and classical pianist who died in 2003 at age 70. She rose from humble roots in America’s Deep South to become one of the most extraordinary artists of the twentieth century, an icon of American music. Simon’s voice was seductive and hypnotic, earning her the nickname of the “High Priestess of Soul” – a name she nonetheless hated.
David Brun-Lambert writes in his biography of Simone that the benevolent Jacques Boni and his Trois Mailletz club proved to be a saving grace in Simone’s life: “Jacques Boni was one of the pianist’s Good Samaritans during her stay in Paris … that little place with the medieval feel (Trois Mailletz) provided her with some kind of anchorage, a relative stability that seemed to be denied elsewhere.”
“Jacques did everything he could do to get Nina back on her feet,” says Simone’s long-time European-based agent, Raymond Gonzalez. “It’s a misconception that Jacques took advantage of Nina during her time at Trois Mailletz. On the contrary, Jacques gave Nina all he had to offer. It was a question of survival for Nina.”
During her meteoric rise to fame in the late 1950s and 1960s, Nina Simone played in some of the greatest music halls in the world – including Carnegie Hall, Olympia in Paris, Apollo Theater in New York, and Palladium in London. But in 1982 – when Jacques persuaded Simone to play at Trois Mailletz during a stint that lasted a year – the famous artist was approaching 50 years old and in some ways had reached rock bottom. Starting over at Trois Mailletz, however, gave Simone the opportunity to take control of her career and life, after others had mismanaged it both badly and dishonestly over the years.
“This is the place where Nina tried to get her career and finances back on track and to regain her mental balance,” biographer Brun-Lambert writes of Trois Mailletz. “Word spread across Paris like wildfire. 'Nina Simone is playing at some club in the Latin Quarter'. The news was barely believable. Nina's mere physical presence left a strong mark throughout her years in Paris – a presence that was magnetic, intense, intimidating, constantly surfing the fine line between allure and annoyance."
“When it was announced that Nina was playing at Trois Mailletz,” Jacques says, “the phone would ring every two or three minutes until we were full. Nina would get all of the money collected at the door,” which amounted to upwards of $5,000 euros in today’s money.
According to Jacques and agent Gonzalez, Nina played some of her all-time great songs at Trois Mailletz – including "My Baby Just Cares for Me," "I Loves You Porgy," "I Put a Spell on You," "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," “Ne Me Quitte Pas (Don’t Leave Me),” and "Il n'y A Pas d'Amour Heureux (There Is No Happy Love).” Simone was usually accompanied by the Trois Mailletz house band during her performances, but she also played with musicians from Simone’s Fodder on My Wings album, which was recorded in Paris earlier in 1982 before she came aboard at Trois Mailletz.
"At her most amazing, Nina could literally transport you somewhere else," Jacques recalls in Simone’s biography. "When someone can make you feel that way even just once, it makes you hope to experience it again one day. And so the public kept coming back just to relive that moment of pure magic, even though just a few minutes later Nina might break the charm and start to yell.
“Nina was a great artist,” Jacques adds today in retrospect. “She was perfect when she was young; she was fantastic. But when she was older, she couldn’t give her soul like that again. Nina became crazy because she couldn’t perform like she did when younger.”
Gonzalez, who booked and managed Simone for some 900 concerts during her European tours, had this perspective of Nina during her Paris years: “On stage, Nina’s presence was magic. She had such charisma. She almost didn't have to sing: the way she held herself, her energy, her majesty. She was a genius as a piano player and singer – one of the greatest jazz performers of all time. She did renditions of songs like nobody else could, like ‘I Loves You Porgy’.”
But even though Simone was a legend on stage, it is known today that she battled many demons off stage – including bipolar disorder and an abusive husband she would eventually leave. These damning accounts came from Simone’s only child, Lisa, and other insiders, who made them public only after Simone’s death in 2003.
“During her later years, Nina began to go down,” Gonzalez adds. “She was mentally unbalanced. If someone said something Nina didn’t want to hear, she lost it: she would pull a knife or gun on you. Nina could be very, very aggressive.” Indeed, Simone brandished a gun on a couple of occasions while in Paris as explained later in this series.
The current movies on Nina Simone, as well as the biographies written about her, reveal her dark side in detail. Simone was known for her sudden outbursts and odd behavior, which was often on display during her days at Trois Mailletz. Simone was known to insult the audience if they made distracting noises during her performances, and even splashed champagne on people if they got too close. Or she would simply walk off the stage if something bothered her during a show.
To Jacques’ credit, he made every attempt to assist the volatile star during her time of need. “Nina would eat your energy, eat you up; people couldn’t be around her for more than a couple of hours,” Jacques says. “When I came around, she would calm down.”
Unknown to Jacques and the Trois Mailletz staff at the time, Simone was in the throes of a mental illness that would be diagnosed later as bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness). The full medical facts of Simone’s mental illness became public only after her death, as portrayed in Brun-Lambert’s biography (2009) and a second biography Princess Noire by Nadine Cohodas (2010).
The National Institute of Mental Health defines bipolar disorder as ‘‘unusually intense emotional states that occur in distinct periods called ‘mood episodes.’ Each mood episode represents a drastic change from a person’s usual mood and behavior. An overly joyful or overexcited state is called a manic episode, and an extremely sad or hopeless state is called a depressive episode.’’
Simone sums up her disorder this way in her autobiography titled I Put a Spell on You: “My waking hours were a succession of intense daydreams with short calm periods in between. ...I had visions of laser beams and heaven, with skin – always skin – involved in there somewhere. On stage, I was lost completely but my subconscious got on with the show, and no one noticed the difference except my musicians… .”
Accounts from the current Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? add the news that Simone’s personal hell was compounded by regular beatings from her manager and second husband Andy Stroud. Simone was subjected to the beatings for years, apparently trapped in a cycle of domestic violence, before leaving Stroud in mid-life.
Thanks to Jacques and Trois Mailletz, Simone had a chance at a second coming in her career. Jacques’ innate desire to help Simone, all while not knowing her mental troubles, helped Simone avoid suffering a further demise and possibly kept her from acting on her documented suicidal tendencies.
While some of Simone’s family knew at the time of her mental problems, it was mostly kept a secret to protect her career. In those days, mental illness was not well understood and could result in being ostracized or committed to a mental institution. It was many years after Nina’s performances at Trois Mailletz before she received any helpful medication.
Simone often expressed the pain and anxiety in her life into song, such as “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which includes the words “Life has its problems, and I get more than my share.”
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Nina Simon, legendary jazz artist and pianist
- Years at Trois Mailletz: 1982-1983
- Nationality: USA (moved to France temporarily in 1982 and then permanently in 1992)
- Occupation: Singer, songwriter and pianist
- Music: Blend of jazz, popular and classical music
- Career Highlights: Recorded more than 40 albums; composed 500 songs; was a 15-time Grammy Award nominee; received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2000 for the Porgy and Bess song "I Loves You, Porgy" (Billboard top 20 hit in 1959); recorded “My Baby Just Cares For Me” in 1958 (used by Chanel in a perfume commercial in Europe in the 1980s and became a British chart topper at No. 4); recorded "I Put A Spell On You" in 1965 (U.S. Billboard R&B chart).