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The Profound, Introspective and Supremely Talented, Nnenna Freelon

Nnenna Freelon’s profile has been on the rise among jazz listeners, as well as among the general listening public. Part of the reason may lie in the integrity that she projects through her music and her choice of songs. Another part of her growing popularity may lie in her interest in the universal themes all people share, such as spirituality, mutual respect and human growth, both physical and emotional.

In addition, Freelon’s appearance with Take 6 during the 2001 Grammy Awards’ program generated a great deal of interest and much comment within the jazz press. Her work in some movies such as What Women Want, as well as performing at high-profile events like the presidential inauguration celebration, gained her stature as one of her generation’s leading jazz singers--all within the span of a little more than ten years.

Freelon doesn’t hesitate to give her husband, Phil, credit, not only for encouraging her, but also for working behind the scenes to further her career. The fact that she pursued a singing career while raising a family gives hope to other women who want to strive for the same degree of success.

Perhaps most important of all, Freelon has combined her early work in health care with her public recognition to call attention to the need for parental use of voice to communicate with their children through song, even when they are newborns. Her interest in music and education led to her appointment as the national spokeswoman for the National Association of Partners in Education, which promotes the teaching of arts in school curricula. Thus, while becoming increasingly well known, Nnenna Freelon is using her celebrity to help improve and make the world a better place. How did you choose the songs for your most recent album, Soulcall?

Nnenna Freelon: "Soulcall has an autobiographical basis. I wanted to show more of who I am as a human being and as a singer. So, I started the CD where I began falling in love with singing-which was singing in the church. I looked back at one of the first songs I ever sang in public: "Amazing Grace." Because I had a long history with that song, I felt that I needed more than one version of it on the CD. One intimate version includes just piano and voice, and the other expresses a community feeling of the same song."

"In my opinion, very single tune on the record could be interpreted on a secular or a sacred level. ‘If it’s Magic’ is a pop tune by Stevie Wonder, but it also is a statement of spirit. ‘Button Up Your Overcoat’ can be a corny song, or it could involve the spirit too. ‘Button up your overcoat, when the wind is free. Take good care of yourself. You belong to me.’ You could look at ‘Paper Moon’ in the same way--as a love song or as a statement of reality from spiritual success. It could mean that the world is more real when the spirit is considered. On Soulcall, one of the criteria for choosing the music was whether the music could be interpreted on more than one level, and whether it came from the sacred tradition or not. The songs that I wrote for the album also come from a real worldview that includes a spiritual component." "I think that the spirit is an important part of our experience. To divide your life into areas that include or exclude spirit is harder than seeing everything for the complex mixture that it is. I think that involving the spirit in your life is a personal way of squeezing value out of every moment. When I go to a Billie Holiday tune like ‘Lover Man’ and experience her longing for connection in her voice, I can interpret that as a sexual longing or a feeling of larger meaning. For me, the experience of music is fuller when it can be about more than one thing." Does music help people attain fulfillment?

Nnenna Freelon: "Any of the arts would do that. Anything that takes you outside of yourself can help you experience something in a larger context. The possibilities exist in any art form, such as tap dancing or visual art." Have listeners told you that you helped them attain a higher level of consciousness?

Nnenna Freelon: "People will say that the music they have experienced has had a positive benefit in their lives. I feel that I’m a conduit for a source that isn’t Nnenna Freelon. I feel that it’s coming from a higher source. I’m doing the best I can to be open and allow it to flow through me. It’s a bit mysterious and I don’t want to pretend to understand the whole process." Have you talked to the men in Take 6 about being a channel?

Nnenna Freelon: Yes, they are a Christian band. They have very strong beliefs about the music they create and what music they would align themselves with. There is certain music that they would choose to perform and not choose to perform, based on their own belief system. They’re talented musicians and arrangers and they’re wonderful human beings. While we didn’t get into any depth on the subject, we all feel that there is more than one way to communicate an idea. So, when we decided to sing ‘Straighten Up and Fly Right,’ there was no confusion along the lines of ‘Oh, this is not a church song, so we can’t do it!’ We didn’t even go there." How were you able to record with Ed Thigpen if he lives in Denmark?

Nnenna Freelon: "He comes back and forth to the United States all the time and I was lucky to catch him when he was in New York. Ed Thigpen has been out there for a very long time. When I asked him to play drums on my date, I pulled on his tasteful expression of rhythm. Also, James Williams is an old friend and someone whose music I really admire. As a young musician, I wanted to have the opportunity to work with some people who are older than I am. I think that as young musicians, we tend to work with our peers. To play with people your own age or younger doesn’t utilize the best opportunities that are available. But, working with older musicians allows someone to benefit from learning from their years of experience. Working with older musicians and my peers, and including different genres, fell together to make what I think was the outstanding project that Soulcall is. In America we are a youth-oriented culture. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the people whose shoulders you stand on are very important." Is the trio with Takana Miyamoto, Wayne Batchelor, Woody Williams and Beverly Botsford your regular group?

Nnenna Freelon: "Right. They didn’t appear on Maiden Voyage,, but that band did the tour to promote that CD. I formed the group through a combination of referrals and people I knew. Maiden Voyage focused on the music that was composed or co-composed by women. One suggestion was put forth that I put together an all-female band. I preferred to put together a band of the best musicians available to me at the time."

"I really loved Maiden Voyage. Concept Records have gotten a bad name somewhat. I think part of the reason for that is that artists haven’t used their most creative energies in coming up with the concepts. Sometimes its ‘we’ll do a tribute to this composer or that composer we’ll do a Gershwin tribute, or we’ll do an Ellington tribute.’ But, I wanted a concept that was open enough to allow me to reach for the areas where my strengths are. So, music composed or co-composed by women is open enough to allow me some breadth and depth into the material. On Maiden Voyage, I looked outside the jazz world. I sang Laura Nyro’s music. I sang songs by Marian McPartland and Nina Simone. The CD wasn’t a repertory project where I did the quote-unquote ‘important’ composers. I mean, Mary Lou Williams or Peggy Lee’s music wasn’t included, although certainly it could have been. But, Maiden Voyage was only one record of 74 minutes. It wasn’t meant to be an exhaustive listing of all the ‘right’ people."

"Writing is such a private experience. No one remembers who writes the tunes--the person who put pen to paper in some lonely, dusty place. The public remembers who had the hit. They remember Roberta Flack and not Buffy Sainte-Marie. I wanted to shine a light on the fact that women have always been involved in music in one way or another. The public hasn’t been dealing with Nina Simone’s music because it has been so controversial. But, I grew up listening to her music and always loved it. I wanted to say ‘thank you’ to her in a way."

"Also, I found that a lot of people don’t know the vocal version of Maiden Voyage. Everyone associates the tune with Herbie Hancock. What they don’t know is that his sister wrote the lyrics. I wouldn’t have had Maiden Voyage on the record at all if it hadn’t had a female kind of energy associated with it. Herbie’s sister, Jean, died tragically in a plane crash about twelve years ago. Including the song was a way for me to give a little ‘thank you’ to her, someone whose life wasn’t fully realized. Evidently, she was a very talented writer. When I asked Herbie to be a guest on the record, I told him that I really wanted to honor his sister. I think that touched him. He’s very busy too. I think that the reason he found space in his life to do the recording was the fact that I was trying to reach for a way to pay tribute to his sister." You started singing at seven years old at the Baptist church?

Nnenna Freelon: "I came out of a culture of singing. A person doesn’t just stand up and sing Amazing Grace one day at the age of seven. In my case, the culture involved singing in the Angels Without Wings Choir, singing at home, hearing my mother and grandmother sing. That culture doesn’t involve singing in front of an audience as much as it is a personal expression that is nurtured and loved by the community. When adults give a child positive reinforcement for standing up and opening his or her mouth in song, that’s powerful. When adults pat a child on the back and tell him or her how beautiful the singing was, and how they’re thanking God for the child’s gift, that’s amazing. It made an imprint on me. After that, I was called on to sing in different contexts like weddings or funerals. I sang in school, glee clubs, the chorus and talent shows." And your father’s and mother’s names were Charles and Frances?

Nnenna Freelon: "Charles and Frances Pierce. That’s right." Do you mind if I ask when you were born? I haven’t seen the birth date documented anywhere.

Nnenna Freelon: "And you’re not going to see it documented either!" My birth date isn’t documented because I haven’t been documenting it. Anyone who reports my birth date is guessing. I don’t think that the birth date is necessarily an important fact. It’s not that I’m ashamed of it or afraid of it. It’s just that we don’t need to go there. You’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t. If you say when you were born, people will say, ‘Oh, you’re older or younger than I thought.’" Did your whole family sing?

Nnenna Freelon: "Everybody sang in a professional way. You have to remember that when I was a child, it was before television became an important part of our lives. At that time there were a lot more conversations, a lot more jump ropes, and a lot more hand games than there are now. We had doo-wap groups. We created our own talent shows. We made our own entertainment by being creative. Part of our ability to learn comes from having the time to figure out how things are done. Today, we have so much leisure time with video games and Teletubbies." Was your father a musician?

Nnenna Freelon: "Nobody in my family is a trained musician, but both my father and mother sang. I can remember asking my father to teach me how to sing ‘sideways’ when I was a little girl. Later, I realized that I was asking him to teach me how to sing harmony. Even in my little young mind, I could hear the relationship between the two voices. I could hear the melody and the harmony. Singing harmony is a natural and wonderful thing that happens when people join their voices. There are literally millions of untrained voices all over the United States in a rich tradition of, say, Appalachian singers who don’t know one note from the other. They learn by ear to sing in a harmonic relationship to one another." And you studied health care in college.

Nnenna Freelon: "I graduated from Simmons College in Boston with a degree in health care administration. At that time, I didn’t see having a career in music as being possible. When I was growing up, I worked as a volunteer in a hospital, so I was everything from a candy striper to a medical records technician. I love the hospital environment and I wanted to work in it."

"Later, I moved to Durham, North Carolina to seek a graduate degree in health care administration. My area of specialization was maternal and child health. For a while, I worked for the Durham County Hospital Corporation. Then, I got married and started my family. That’s when I really looked at myself to see what I wanted to do with my life. I began to evaluate my own sense of self in the world. I wanted to find out what my passion was. In a sense, I grew up. I think that the lack of self-evaluation is typical among a lot of women, even though they may claim to know what they want to do. We very rarely take a linear path in our lives. We don’t start off at the age of seven and say, ‘I want to be a lawyer.’ Not only are women afraid of making that commitment, but one of the realities is childbearing. All of the things associated with childbearing are likely to affect how the mother actually thinks. Life is very different for a young man. If he says, ‘I want to do this,’ the world will say, ‘Go for it, Mister!’ What made you decide to get into music?

Nnenna Freelon: "My husband, Phil, absolutely supported me, and not just verbally. Sometimes, he would leave work to carry the speakers and monitors for the gigs. He told me that he wouldn’t allow me to use my family situation as an excuse for my unfulfilled desires. I’m very lucky." Did you get your first jobs in North Carolina?

Nnenna Freelon: "I started on a local level, as do many other artists. The county I lived in was semi-dry, and there were no clubs. The only places I could find for performing were restaurants. So, my training ground involved learning how to put together a repertoire and how to deal with an audience on a local level. Singing in a restaurant isn’t the same as working in a club where people pay a fee to hear you sing. Instead, you sing with a pianist or guitarist in the corner where the restaurant owner has moved a few tables out of the way. You have to make music that hopefully won’t interfere with the dining pleasure of the patrons in the restaurant. As the night wears on, it turns into a club atmosphere. The diners have finished eating by then and they’re ready to be entertained."

"At the very beginning, I had to give myself permission to pursue my dream. After that, I committed to all the hard work that it takes to craft a career and to learn and to reach out to others. I had to step out on faith. My journey took me to the library to find books. It took me to the telephone to talk to people who knew a little bit more than I did. I went to Jazz In July, which is a wonderful camp at the University of Massachusetts, and I met Billy Taylor and Yusef Lateef there. They helped me develop the ability that already existed and pointed to me in a direction that involved working in the community. Someone had a record store and its collection took me from the world of Nancy Wilson to the world of Dinah Washington, and to the music of Little Jimmy Scott. It was a very organic process. We have a vibrant jazz community in Durham, North Carolina. It has folks who worked with Billie Holiday and some who are very knowledgeable. Three universities with jazz programs are here: the University of North Carolina, North Carolina Central University and Duke University. Because of those resources, musicians used to come to town to perform. At that time, I didn’t have money to see these people at $25 a pop, so I volunteered and offered my services by passing out programs. In that way, I got a chance to meet some of these artists and establish relationships with them that have lasted until today." How did you move from regional work in North Carolina to national recognition?

Nnenna Freelon: "A lot of it involved networking-going to the International Association of Jazz Educators’ meetings, meeting people at jobs and putting together a press kit. That’s the business part of show business, and my husband helps me put together a mailing list. It’s not enough to have talent. You have to let people know where you’re performing. An incredible amount of your energy is spent in the business end. Networking is a big part of it. In 1990, I 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." And you recorded your first Columbia album, Nnenna Freelon in 1992.

Nnenna Freelon: "Right. That was a string recorded/produced by Bob Freedman. The second album Heritage, included Kenny Barron, Lewis Nash and Christian McBride. After that one, I recorded Listen, and I did a lot of original music on that one. After I recorded the third album, George Butler left Columbia Records and I didn’t have an advocate at the label. So, the label dropped me in 1994. I went two years without being on a label. I signed with Concord in 1996." What did you do in the intervening two years?

Nnenna Freelon: "I toured like crazy, both nationally and internationally. I worked more in those two years than I thought would be possible. I had to keep reminding myself that I was making music before I made records. I realized that there was a lot of work I needed to do, whether or not I was with Columbia Records."

"Signing with Concord was a great move. They allowed me artistic freedom. Every CD I have recorded for Concord has been nominated for a Grammy: Shaking Free, Maiden Voyage and Soulcall." Weren’t you still raising your family at the time that Ellis discovered you?

Nnenna Freelon: "Yes." So, you had dual responsibilities.

Nnenna Freelon: "Once you have a child, that’s it! My mother says that’s ‘an indefinite sentence.’ [Laughs] No one is able to be just one thing in his or her life. I’m not ‘Nnenna Freelon the singer.’ I’m ‘Nnenna Freelon the singer, wife, daughter, granddaughter, mother and cousin.’ People juggle numerous roles, and one of them gains more prominence depending on what’s happening in a person’s life at the time. But, I can tell you this: the fact that I’m a mother makes me a better singer, and the fact that I’m a singer makes me a better mother. The creative principles that I juggle as a jazz artist spill over into my life as a wife and a mother." How does that happen?

Nnenna Freelon: "Sometimes when I’m singing, I may want to start at the bridge instead of at the top of the tune. Or, I may want to change the key. As a mother, when I came home and there may have been nothing thawed out, I may have said, ‘Hey, it’s upside-down day. We’re going to have breakfast for dinner. So it’s pancakes and sausage for dinner instead of meatloaf.’ Jazz is a metaphor for life. It’s a powerful tool for living creatively every day of one’s life. When I sing about love, I’m not just singing about romance. I have the depth and breadth from living to come from more than one direction, including being up at three a.m. with a sick child. Or, I know the conflict that you feel when you leave someone you love. I really know what that’s about--walking away from my family to go on tour and finding that my kids had given me a little card that says ‘Mom, I love you, and I’m going to miss you.’ I mean, the complicated, sticky, down-and-dirty challenges that life gives you can become a part of your art." Did your husband help while you toured?

Nnenna Freelon: "Oh, yes. He helped himself too. I was a very hands-on mother. My absence allowed him to have the opportunity for a relationship with the kids that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. I would have been all over them. He would not have been able to get in quite the same way, had I been home all the time." What type of work does your husband do?

Nnenna Freelon: "He’s an architect. He has his own firm, the second largest in the state. He has about thirty-five employees, so he’s very successful in his own world. I think that his support for me comes from the fact that he knows what it feels like to build a career. I supported him as he saw his business grow. You can throw money at a lot of issues in a relationship if it’s available. If you need someone to fill in the gap, you can hire someone. Then there are other problems that no amount of money can fix, like an incurable cancer. However, if the question is, ‘Do you need day care?’ and you have additional funds, you can throw money at that problem. One of the questions of a relationship is which kinds of issues money can deal with and which kinds money cannot deal with. Then couples have to make decisions based on those evaluations. If your child needs you, and you’re the only person who can help the child, then you just have to say ‘no’ to the gig and stay home. It’s as simple as that!" And you have three children?

Nnenna Freelon: "Deen is a junior at Stanford. Maya is a graduating senior in high school, and Pierce is a junior in high school." Who is Liana?

Nnenna Freelon: "Liana is my niece. She is seven, and she’s my favorite girl. She lives in Maryland with her dad, Melvin. Her mom, my sister-in-law, passed away three years ago from breast cancer." What did the kids think when you performed on the Grammy Awards show?

Nnenna Freelon: "I got major cool points for that. Major! I had a wonderful time there. My goal isn’t to win Grammies, though. My goal is to be performing a long time. If I sing long enough, they’ll have to give me a Grammy! I mean, Shirley Horn was nominated eleven times before she won. My goal is to be here until they turn off the lights. If an artist sets his or her sights on ‘I will have made it when I win a Grammy,’ that’s a mistake, in my opinion. I know some people who have won Grammies and the award didn’t do a thing for them. Other people who have never won are doing great things." How did you become associated with the National Association of Partners in Education?

Nnenna Freelon: "The association became aware of my jazz education work as the result of a speech I gave at a jazz education breakfast at the Kennedy Center. One of the association’s representatives approached me and asked if I would like to be its national spokesperson. I was honored by the request, but I didn’t exactly know what a national spokesperson does. The role has evolved so that in the course of my concerts, I talk about the need for volunteerism in schools and the need for arts education. Mostly, I spread awareness and understanding about the connection between the arts and education. Partners in Education represent four hundred thousand partnerships and seven million volunteers on a nationwide basis. Working with the association has been a wonderful connection for me." How are messages worked into your concerts?

Nnenna Freelon: "They’re woven in through the song I wrote, One Child At A Time. I’m going to record the song as a fund-raising project." Are you going to do television commercials?

Nnenna Freelon: "I hope so. The association is still gathering funds for that. We are looking at the recording as a We Are The World kind of project, in which we’ll include a children’s choir and famous voices. We hope to involve a lot of talent so that they will lend their support to the very real issue of helping our public schools." What was the subject of the speech you gave at Kennedy Center?

Nnenna Freelon: "It described some of my experiences about integrating the arts into the general curriculum of the schools. I spoke from my perspective as a jazz artist, as a world-community believer, and as someone who cares about children. That perspective ignited the association’s interest because, as it turned out, we were both working toward the same goal." What is the concept behind I>Babysong?

Nnenna Freelon: "I started the program in 1990 at Duke University Hospital in Durham. A lot of us are shy and won’t use our voices. I try to express to the parents that the babies think that their parents’ voices are the most melodious because they have been hearing those voices since before they were born. So, a parent’s voice has a greater impact on a baby than any CD that could be purchased. I also talk to the parents about using their singing voices to teach rhythm, grace and beauty and to nurture. People all over the planet do that, and they don’t go to seminars to learn it. In America, so many options are available to us: television, radio or CD’s. But, none of them is as effective as the human voice."

"I teach a lot of young mothers--fourteen, fifteen or sixteen years old--about ear health, so that they can shield their babies from loud sounds. Low-frequency bass sounds, especially, are very damaging to the ear. I’m seeing more and more children suffering from hearing loss after they are exposed to music that is too loud for their delicate ears. A lot of young mothers turn the CD player up to full volume, and yet the babies don’t have the capacity to withstand it. I think that babies are overloaded with aural stimuli. The brain compensates in ways that can have negative physical, emotional and psychological effects over the long term. More and more, I have to talk to young mothers about the psychological reality of a young child. When a mother hollers for her eighteen-month old child to come to her and the baby won’t come, stubbornness can account for some of the reaction. But, another part of it is the inability of an 18-month old’s brain to distinguish one voice from the ambient sounds in the room. Small children have trouble separating the mother’s voice from the sounds of the television and radio in the same room. I tell the mothers not to get frustrated because they think the baby is ignoring them. So, mothers have to get in their children’s faces, make eye contact, and quietly, but firmly speak to them while holding their faces and their hands." How have the mothers responded?

Nnenna Freelon: "They’re dealing with what I’m saying, but also with a million other things. Like: "How am I going to catch the bus home?" Or: "Who’s going to pay the rent?’ Or: ‘When’s my WIC check coming?’ They have to deal with a whole social and cultural reality of raising their children alone-and without the kind of support that I had because my husband helped me." And you involve the audiences in your concerts.

Nnenna Freelon: "I think everyone wants to talk to an artist. They ask, ‘How did you arrange that song?’ ‘Have you ever heard of this song?’ How do you come up with your ideas?’ ‘What is scat singing all about?’ So, I think that singing a song and then engaging the audience in a way that allows them to participate is a wonderful thing." Do you make them sing their questions?

Nnenna Freelon: "They don’t have to do that, but I require participation. If they just want to be entertained in a regular concert, I say, ‘Let’s start scatting. Call and response. You follow me.’ Then, we get into a little scat session which is fun." Are you working on any new projects?

Nnenna Freelon: "I’ll be going into the studio in the fall." Will you be the producer of this CD too?

Nnenna Freelon: "Oh, I don’t know about that. I felt that I was the right person to produce Soulcall, but I’m under no pressure to produce every CD that I do from now on. We’re still working on the concept, and whether I produce will depend on that." Do you still have time to be involved in community activities?

Nnenna Freelon: "I just completed a seminar tour which went to Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia. A workshop was a part of every one of the concerts. Many people chose Babysong, interestingly enough."

"This is not the first generation that has had to deal with difficulties, but these are very difficult times, I must say. I’m just trying to give back to the community."

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  • Artist / Group Name: Nnenna Freelon
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