Six-time GRAMMY® Award-nominee Nnenna Freelon has earned a well-deserved reputation as a compelling and captivating live performer, most recently in 2007 on “In Performance At The White House” to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. At the 43rd annual GRAMMY Awards telecast from Los Angeles, she inspired an enthusiastic standing ovation from 20,000 music-industry insiders and celebrities when she took to the stage. Prior to that stirring appearance, Freelon’s performances for the legendary Julie Andrews at the Society of Singers’ “Ella Awards,” Variety’s The Children’s Charity (as a featured vocalist at the Stephen Sondheim Tribute at Carnegie Hall), Jerry Lewis’ Labor Day Muscular Dystrophy Telethon and at the most famous jazz festivals around the globe have all been rousing successes. No wonder—for anyone who has heard and seen Freelon sing knows she is a skillful interpreter of even the most familiar chestnuts.
On her Grammy-nominated (for Best Jazz Vocal Performance) release, Blueprint Of A Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday, Freelon pays tribute to the quintessential jazz vocalist Billie Holiday. As inventive as ever, Freelon turns these Holiday-associated songs and fulfills Billie Holiday’s message to all artists: “No two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way with music or it isn’t music.” With her own band, and with Ronald K. brown & EVIDENCE, Freelon and Brown turn this into a multi-media music and dance offering unlike any show previously seen! Freelon is a winner of both the Billie Holiday Award from the prestigious Academie du Jazz and this tribute brings her to a heartfelt source of inspiration for her artistry and dedication to the music and the power it possesses in education and art.
On her fifth, and previous, Concord Records release, Live (CCD- 2184), Nnenna Freelon brings all of her alluring talents to bear. The result is a beguiling and intimate achievement. Recorded at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, on February 21 and 22, 2003, Live marks a decade-long recording career for Freelon, as well as 20-years on the road.
It has certainly been a heady decade for Freelon. In addition to five GRAMMY nominations while on the Concord label, Freelon also made her feature film debut in the Mel Gibson hit, “What Women Want,” and sang a remake of Sinatra’s classic, “Fly Me To The Moon” for “The Visit,” starring Billy Dee Williams. She is also a winner of the Eubie Blake Award, and has twice been nominated for the “Lady of Soul” Soul Train Award. What’s more, Freelon has performed and toured with a veritable who’s who in jazz, from Ray Charles and Ellis Marsalis to Al Jarreau and George Benson, among many others.
Born and raised in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Freelon received her undergraduate degree from Simmons College in Boston. Her parents and singing in the church gave the singer her first exposure to the arts – especially to the art of jazz. Her father’s playing Count Basie recordings and her mother’s active involvement in their church led Freelon to an appreciation of all music which she eventually pursued as a career in jazz. All the while, Freelon has cherished and held dear her two most important lifetime roles – wife and mother. Her husband Phil Freelon is an accomplished award-winning architect, his firm The Freelon Group based in North Carolina. Mother of three, Freelon has led by example – follow your dreams, dedicate yourself, and work hard in all you do.
Now with nine recordings to her name, Freelon’s explored the roles of vocalist, entertainer, composer, educator, arranger, and producer. “We continue to evolve—artists have hungry minds and hearts, so we’re always working on the next thing—but I felt it was just time to stop, take a breath, and enjoy! I’ve grown a lot, both musically and spiritually, on this journey. Before, many things were ‘first’ experiences, but now I’m going back to some of the same festivals and clubs, and realizing I am happy and content where I am. It’s great to see all the awards and career milestones building up,” she admits, “but it’s even nicer to realize people are coming to the shows and saying, ‘I saw you back in ’95!’ I’ve made a lot of friends on the road.”
An accomplished singer, composer, producer, and arranger (as well as budding actress), Freelon has dedicated herself to educating young people, both musicians and non-musicians. She toured the United States for four years as the National Spokesperson for Partners In Education. Her master classes and workshops, from “Sound Sculpture” to the ground-breaking “Babysong,” teach adults and children that you too can change the world – even one person at a time – but it takes dedication and perseverance, the substance of Nnenna’s educational activities. The messages in Nnenna’s activities go far beyond technique. Her messages reach into the very soul of the person listening and encourage, in fact motivates them, toward constructive change and to create positive energy.
With her anthem “One Child At A Time” found on her “Soulcall” recording, Freelon took on the task of fund-raising and bringing greater attention to the needs of children in education through mentoring and the arts. It has become one of the most sought-after songs for its lyrics to its music and has been used by countless organizations including local, regional and national groups including the United Way.
Tune in as she talks to host Judy Carmichael about starting as a healthcare worker and evolving into a jazz singer.