Nina Simone Band Leader Al Schackman Defends Zoe Saldana's 'Sensitive' Acting and Singing: Exclusive

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the 2016 film Nina
RLJ Entertainment

Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in the 2016 film Nina.

This week began the countdown to the April 22 release of the controversy-plagued biopic Nina Simone. Leading the vociferous outcry: criticism of light-skinned actress Zoe Saldana being cast in the title role. One of the people who knew Simone best is her longtime music director and friend, guitarist Al Schackman.

Simone and Schackman met in 1957 when mutual friends of the pair suggested he sit in with the musician/singer at Bucks Country Playhouse in New Hope, Penn. “She started playing the intro to "Little Girl Blue"; I joined in after she went through the first motif," recalls Schackman. "Then we were off and running" -- to the tune of 46 years until Simone’s passing in 2003.

Calling the biopic a "fair composite" and Saldana’s portrayal "studied and sensitive," Schackman also talks about the real Simone’s genius and anger, her daughter Lisa’s own talent and getting ready to take Simone’s original band back on the road.

What stood out the most about Simone’s talent?

It was her ability to take an ordinary piece of music and create something entirely new. She was a genius. And she had this gift of metamorphosis: she really became the person in the story of the song she was singing. Especially women that had been abandoned by their man. Women identified with her. I think she was one of the first people who made an incredible stand for women’s liberation and women’s rights.

A lot of people didn’t understand that when Nina did a performance, it took a lot of energy. She became every role -- as if you were looking at a theater piece with four or five people on stage performing in different roles. Well, she was all of those roles. She would do that throughout 15 songs in a performance and at the end of that she was drained. When a band or an artist goes out on tour, you might play five to six concerts in a week. Nina couldn’t do that. She demanded a travel day, a rest day, the concert day and a rest day after that. Then travel again.

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How would you assess Saldana’s portrayal?

There’s been a lot of harsh criticism about Zoe. It’s very unfair. Her portrayal is studied and very sensitive. And there are moments when she really captured Nina, especially her anger. Zoe did a very good job and I don’t think there’s anyone who could have done better. When it comes to the singing, I also don’t think anybody could have done a better job. I mean, you could have gotten a really big-time singer. Mary J. Blige was supposed to play the role but things [with the movie] dragged on so long that she couldn’t. But no offense, if you had Mary J. singing Nina Simone’s songs, you’d have exactly that: Mary J. singing those songs. Or the same with any other major vocal artist. Zoe’s undertaking of Nina’s songs worked out. She’s not overdubbed, not lip-synching; it’s her voice. She especially did a very good job on the song “Wild is the Wind.”

And the biopic overall?

It’s a fair composite of Nina’s life. There’s an element of Nina’s fan base that’s so passionately loyal that it’s difficult for them to accept anything beyond their own views and memories. I try to be open to interpretations as long as they’re based on what I know to be real. There are things that didn’t happen exactly the way they’re portrayed in the movie, but I can attest that they did happen at other times. So in that sense it’s not fiction; it’s an interpretation.

Courtesy of Al Schackman
Nina Simone with her band leader, Al Schackman.

Does that apply to the romantic relationship between Simone and manager Clifton Henderson that was reportedly the film’s focus? 

I was asked about all of that six years ago when director Cynthia Mort asked me to consult with her on various facts. The script then had gone in the direction of a love interest. I can tell you that in the final version of the film, there’s not a romantic element in there. There’s a friendship but no sexuality; no intimate romantic relationship in the film. It’s not about that. It’s mainly based around Nina having problems, leaving America for Paris and really floundering before a gradual comeback. In the film, she first meets Clifton while she’s in the hospital and later hires him to go back with her as her assistant.

How involved were you in selecting the songs that Saldana sings in the movie?

Cynthia told me what songs she wanted to have in the movie and I also suggested songs. Every arrangement for the songs we did was extremely true to the way we performed those pieces with Nina. Musical director Marius de Vries was brought in to direct the larger pieces of music. I had no contact with the film after that. But among the songs we did were "Feeling Good," "I Put a Spell on You" and "My Baby Just Cares for Me." We recorded with Zoe at Capitol Records in Los Angeles.

What do you miss the most about Nina?

Oh Lord, where do you start? Everything except her anger. I most miss the way she called me sugar. "Hey suga"  [imitating a southern lilt]. That was that little ril from the northwest corner of North Carolina.

Was she able to rid herself of the anger before she died?

She was always distant from her audience and could be angry with them. The two of us used to stand offstage waiting to go on while the rest of the band would be on the other side. And we would hold hands. One time, she looked at me and said, "This is all we have, isn’t it now?" I said, "Well Nina, pretty much so. But who’s out there is your family." And she said, "Yeah, I’ve come to see that." In that period of her life, she showed the audience a lot of love. Our last tour together was in 2000.

Besides writing a book about your experiences with Simone, you’re planning a tour with the original band members.

All the dates aren’t set yet, but we’re working up a multi-city tour. One of the performance will be during the Blue Note Jazz Festival in NY in early July. Then we’ll be doing some regional gigs. Besides myself, the band includes Lyle Atkinson on bass, Leopoldo Fleming on percussion, Paul Robinson on drums and Jeremy Berlin, who’s marvelous in capturing Nina’s pianistic style. And we’re hoping to go out with several vocalists; the wish list includes Oleta Adams, Bettye LaVette and Marsha Ambrosius.

Might Simone’s daughter Lisa join the tour?

I have not been in contact with Lisa for a while. I believe she’s living in France. We did a concert tour in 2010 called Sing the Truth that included Lisa, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright. We did Europe, the Far East, New Zealand and Australia and were hoping to do the States but didn’t. However,  I’m looking forward to getting back together with Lisa. Some of the public thinks she is following her mother’s career and living in her shadow. She absolutely is not. She’s a marvelous artist and wonderful performer onstage in her own right. She’s so full of joy.