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Nnenna Freelon

Nnenna Freelon

Nnenna Freelon, (born July 28, 1954) is an American jazz singer, composer, producer, and arranger. She has been nominated for five Grammy Awards for her vocal work, and has performed and toured with such top artists as Ray Charles, Ellis Marsalis, Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, Aretha Franklin, Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall, Ramsey Lewis, George Benson, Clark Terry, Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, just to name a few.One critic described her as "a spell-binding professional, who rivets attention with her glorious, cultivated voice and canny stagecraft". She has performed at Carnegie Hall, Hollywood Bowl, Ellington Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Apollo Theater, Montreux Jazz Festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and more.

Life and career

Freelon was born Chinyere Nnenna Pierce in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was raised, to Charles and Frances Pierce. As a young woman, she sang extensively in her community and the Union Baptist Church and at St. Paul AME. She has a brother Melvin and a sister named Debbie. Nnenna graduated from Simmons College in Boston, with a degree in health care administration. For a while she worked for the Durham County Hospital Corporation, Durham, North Carolina. From the Kennedy Center interview with Nnenna:


In 1979, she married architect Philip Freelon. She and her husband raised three children, Deen, Maya and Pierce, before she decided to perform professionally as a jazz singer. Their son Pierce Freelon is a Hip-Hop artist, a visiting professor of Political Science at North Carolina Central University and the founder of a website called Blackademics, where he has interviewed many notable figures such as Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Jesse Jackson. Deen Freelon is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University studying social media and politics. Daughter Professor Maya Freelon, is an award-winning visual artist.

Recording career

In 1990, Nnenna Freelon went to the Southern Arts Federation’s jazz meeting and met Ellis Marsalis. "That was a big turning point. At that time, I had been singing for seven years. Ellis is an educator and he wanted to nurture and help. What I didn’t know at the time was that George Butler of Columbia Records was looking for a female singer. Ellis asked me for a package of materials. I had my little local press kit and my little tape with original music. Two years later, I was signed to Columbia Records.” She was in her late 30s when she made her debut CD, Nnenna Freelon, for Columbia Records in 1992. The label dropped her in 1994, and Concord Records signed her in 1996.In Maiden Voyage (1998), she leaves behind standard and comfortable conventions and releases an inner spirit that allows her to creatively soar to a higher dimension. Watch out! When a woman reaches this point there's no telling what will come next. Freelon's seventh album is Tales of Wonder (2002), covers hit songs written and/or recorded by Stevie Wonder. She considers him one of the greatest artists of our time and describes how his music easily became her music, as it touched her life throughout the years. "A lot of Stevie Wonder's music is on the level of many other unique artists like Duke Ellington, like Thelonious Monk. When you hear Stevie, you know that's who it is. I put him in a genius class, he's fabulous." On her Grammy-nominated release, Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday (2005), which comes highly recommended, Freelon pays tribute to the quintessential jazz vocalist Billie Holiday in the best possible way—without imitation and putting her own interpretations on material written by or associated with Lady Day. Her band, adjusted to fit the mood of each song, skillfully complements her at every turn. With Freelon is a group of veteran jazz artists who give her album a welcome presence. Tenor saxophonist Dave Ellis, trumpeter Christian Scott, and flutist Mary Fettig add stellar musical partnerships to the program. Freelon's long-term quartet of Brandon McCune, Wayne Bachelor, Kinah Boto, and Beverly Botsford provide cohesive accompaniment that serves as an intuitive accompaniment for her vocal offerings.

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