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Wed, 07.28.1954

Nnenna Freelon, Singer born

Nnenna Freelon

*Nnenna Freelon was born on this date in 1954.  She is a Black jazz singer, composer, producer, and arranger.  

Freelon was born Chinyere Nnenna Pierce to Charles and Frances Pierce in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  She has a brother named Melvin and a sister named Debbie. As a young woman, she sang in her community, Union Baptist Church, and St. Paul AME Church.  Freelon graduated from Simmons College in Boston with a degree in health care administration. She worked for the Durham County Hospital Corporation in Durham, North Carolina, for a while.  She says her influences included Nina Simone and Billy Eckstine, whose records her parents played at home. "It's important to expose your children to a wide musical environment," she says. "I did something that my grandmother told me: 'Bloom where you're planted,' 'don't get on a bus and go to New York or L.A., sing where you are'."   

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 the website Blackademics, for which he has interviewed many notable figures such as Angela Davis, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, and Jesse Jackson.  Deen Freelon is an associate professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, studying social media and politics. Daughter Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist.  

In 1990, Nnenna Freelon attended the Southern Arts Federation's jazz meeting and met Ellis Marsalis Jr. "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 in 1992. The label dropped her in 1994, and Concord Records signed her in 1996.  

She has worked with Ray Charles, Marsalis, Al Jarreau, Anita Baker, Aretha Franklin, Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall, Ramsey LewisGeorge Benson, Clark Terry, Herbie Hancock, and Terence Blanchard. She has performed at Carnegie Hall, Hollywood Bowl, Ellington Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Apollo Theater, Montreux Jazz Festival, and John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.  Freelon is the national spokesperson for the National Association of Partners in Education, an organization with over 400,000 school and community partnership programs across the United States dedicated to arts education.

Freelon has maintained ties to her hospital work as her jazz career has flourished. Her Baby Song workshops, which she started at Duke University Medical Center in 1990, teach young mothers and healthcare providers the importance of the human voice for healing and nurturing. She emphasizes the importance of parents singing to children to enhance brain development.  

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