Freelon, Nnenna 1954–
Nnenna Freelon 1954–
A late bloomer who first took up jazz singing in adulthood, Nnenna Freelon ranked among the most exciting vocalists in the jazz field by the early 21st century. With a technique rooted in the stylings of jazz legend Sarah Vaughan, Freelon incorporated diverse influences ranging from gospel to folk music to hip-hop into a classic improvisational framework. Freelon also e-merged as a spokesperson for the inclusion of jazz education in school curricula, and has devoted much time and energy to that cause.
Nnenna Chinyere Freelon (her first name is pronounced “Nina,” with a long “e” sound) was born on July 28, 1954 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the home of Harvard University and perhaps the most sophisticated academic community in the United States. Her early upbringing was filled with contrasts that, some would suggest, later manifested themselves in her music. Freelon’s father, a television repairman, was a jazz fan who enjoyed the music of Duke Ellington, but there were plenty of down-home sounds in her environment as well. Her father came from North Carolina and her mother from Texarkana, Texas, and the family attended churches where gospel music was sung.
Soon Freelon was in demand to sing in church—her first solo was “Amazing Grace”— and at neighborhood gatherings. Her vocal talent, she recalled in the Los Angeles Times, was regarded as “community property, as something that doesn’t belong to you,” and her parents never let her accept payment for performing. As a teenager Freelon listened to the pop and funk music of her day, giving little thought to the jazz of her parents’ generation. She attended Simmons College in Boston and in 1979 moved to North Carolina with her husband, Phil, an architect. The couple had three children, and Freelon remained based in Durham, North Carolina.
Working as a hospital administrator, Freelon felt frustrated with the lack of creativity in her life. “My marriage was at stake,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “My life was at stake. I was charged with negative energy, being eaten alive by it, and here was Phil saying: ’You can’t use the kids or the family as an excuse. You have choices. Find them.’” Freelon enrolled in a local jazz workshop and took to it immediately. “I was a thirsty flower soaking up all this new energy,” she told the Times. And she discovered that
At a Glance…
Born on July 28, 1954, in Cambridge, MA; married Phil, an architect; children: three. Education: Simmons College, MA; studied jazz in community-education workshop, Durham, NC; studied with jazz saxophonist Yusef Lateef, 1980s.
Career: Jazz vocalist. Formed band, late 1980s; did session work for Ellis Marsalis, early 1990s; Marsalis arranged signing with Columbia label; released debut album Nnenna Freelon, 1992; signed with Concord Jazz label, 1995; toured Europe; worked to promote jazz education in schools, late 1990s; led student performance and songwriting workshops, Washington, DC, 1999; released self-produced album Soulcall, 2000.
Addresses: Record Label —Concord Records, P.O. Box 845, Concord, CA 94522
some of her father’s love of jazz had rubbed off on her—to her surprise, she found that she already knew the chord changes of the classic jazz pieces used in the workshop.
Thoroughly hooked, Freelon worked hard on her technique, spending much of her free time at a Durham record store with a sympathetic, jazz-loving owner. “Music claimed me,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I had to do it, plain and simple. It’s what I was put here to do.” Later she studied with jazz saxophonist Yusef Lateef, and in the late 1980s she put together a band of her own. Her stepping stone to the national level came when she impressed Ellis Marsalis, a veteran New Orleans jazzman and father of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, at an early 1990s session. Marsalis recommended her to the Columbia record label. She was signed to a contract, and her first album, Nnenna Freelon, was released in 1992.
That album drew comparisons with Sarah Vaughan— both in a positive sense and in the negative one that Freelon’s vocal style was too closely tied to that of Vaughan. The album featured vocal standards performed with a string-orchestra accompaniment. Her second album, 1993’s Heritage, showed the artist developing a more individual voice, and she continued to gain attention with her third release, Listen, which appeared in 1994. She toured widely, making a number of appearances in the important European jazz market and winning the Billie Holiday award from the Academie du Jazz in France in 1995.
The following year, Freelon moved to the smaller Concord Jazz label. The recordings she released after that move increasingly bore her personal imprint, and the trajectory of her career turned sharply upward. Her Concord Jazz debut, Shaking Free, won her a Grammy nomination, as did its successor, 1998’s Maiden Voyage. The much-honored poet and novelist Maya Angelou praised Freelon’s “glistening pipes,” according to Ebony, and said that “the durable beauty of her voice makes the listener remember having heard such transparent talent 35 and 40 and even 50 years ago.”
Maiden Voyage showed the artist becoming increasingly adventurous in her choice of material; the album took the work of female songwriters as its point of departure, including composers from outside the jazz realm such as the Canadian Native folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie and pop craftswoman Laura Nyro. “I came to realize that because I am a jazz signer and have a jazz sensibility, anything I do is going to be a piece that fits squarely within that realm,” Freelon explained to the Kansas City Star.
Realizing the effect that a jazz education program had in awakening her own latent talent, Freelon has worked to promote jazz in schools. In 1999 she made a series of monthly visits to a high school in Washington, D.C., leading songwriting workshops and finding herself bowled over by her students’ enthusiasm even in the face of a school program that had few resources. The school’s band program was completely inactive, yet “there was more raw talent and energy in those kids than I’ve seen in a long time,” Freelon told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “They were very, very talented human beings who were working with stone knives.” Freelon became involved with the education-volunteer group Partners in Education, writing a song, “One Child at a Time,” for the group.
The growing diversity of Freelon’s music and the increasing degree of control she exercised over her own career both reached a new peak with her 2000 release, Soulcall, which Freelon herself produced. The album included several songs composed by Freelon (including “One Child at a Time”), several pop standards, and guest slots from several instrumental jazz stalwarts and the virtuoso gospel vocal groups Sounds of Blackness and Take 6. The album also featured two separate versions of “Amazing Grace,” the song with which Freelon had begun her performing career.
Soulcall earned Freelon her fifth Grammy nomination and propelled her to several high-profile appearances in the year 2001. She performed at the inauguration of President George W. Bush in January of that year and again with Take 6 at the 2001 Grammy Awards. Freelon “has matured into a genuine rival to Diana Krall and Dee Dee Bridgewater,” the London Times noted that year. Nnenna Freelon was continuing along the journey of finding her voice, and taking more and more listeners along with her on that journey.
Nnenna Freelon, Columbia, 1992.
Heritage, Columbia, 1993.
Listen, Columbia, 1994.
Shaking Free, Concord Jazz, 1996.
Maiden Voyage, Concord Jazz, 1998.
Soulcall, Concord Jazz, 2000.
Larkin, Colin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Muze UK, 1998.
Boston Herald, May 22, 1998, p. S17.
Down Beat, March 2001, p. 40.
Ebony, December 1996, p. 62.
Essence, August 2001, p. 60.
Houston Chronicle, May 22, 2001, p. 1.
Kansas City Star, November 25, 1998, p. E8.
Ladies Home Journal, July 2001, p. 18.
Los Angeles Times, November 11, 1993, p. F11; February 5, 1995, p. Calendar-4.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 28, 2001, p. F5.
The Times (London, England), July 11, 2001, Features section.
All Music Guide, http://allmusic.com.
—James M. Manheim
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