Nnenna Freelon

Nnenna Freelon (born July 28, 1954)[1] is an American jazz singer, composer, producer, and arranger. She has been nominated for six Grammy Awards for her vocal work,[2] 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, and Terence Blanchard.

Nnenna Freelon
Freelon in 1998
Background information
Birth nameChinyere Nnenna Pierce
Born (1954-07-28) July 28, 1954
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
GenresVocal jazz, cool jazz, traditional pop
Years active1992–present
LabelsConcord, Columbia

One critic described her as "a spell-binding professional, who rivets attention with her glorious, cultivated voice and canny stagecraft".[3] 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.

Early life and education

Freelon was born Chinyere Nnenna Pierce to Charles and Frances Pierce in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was raised.[4] She has a brother Melvin and a sister named Debbie. As a young woman, she sang extensively in her community and the Union Baptist Church and at St. Paul AME. She recalled, "I started singing in the church, like so many others...."[5] 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.

She suggests that her influences included several "not famous people", as well as such familiar names as Nina Simone and Billy Eckstine, artists whose records her parents played at home. "It's important to expose your children to a wide musical environment," she says, grateful that her parents did just that. Nnenna followed her grandmother's sage advice regarding those singing aspirations. "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'."[5]

Personal life

In 1979, she married architect Philip Freelon.[4] She and her husband raised three children, Deen, Maya and Pierce, before she decided to perform professionally as a jazz singer.[6] 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.[7] Deen Freelon is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University studying social media and politics.[8] Daughter Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist.[9]


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 in 1992. The label dropped her in 1994, and Concord Records signed her in 1996.[10]

Babysong workshops

Nnenna Freelon is deeply involved in arts education as the national spokesperson for the National Association of Partners in Education, an organization with over 400,000 school/community partnership programs across the United States, dedicated to the improvement of the quality of American education by supporting arts education programs.[11] Freelon has also maintained ties to her hospital-work roots as her jazz career has flourished. Her Babysong workshops, which she launched at Duke University Medical Center in 1990, teach young mothers and healthcare providers the importance of the human voice for healing and nurturing. She particularly stresses the importance of parents singing to small children to enhance brain development.[12][13]


Nnenna Freelon was awarded the Eubie Blake Award from the Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute, and the Billie Holiday Award from the Academie du Jazz. Freelon performed a film soundtrack, remaking Frank Sinatra's classic "Fly Me to the Moon" for The Visit movie, starring Billy Dee Williams. She also had a cameo as a nightclub singer in the 2000 Mel Gibson romantic comedy What Women Want, performing her trademark song "If I Had You". In addition, she has been nominated twice for the "Lady of Soul" Soul Train Award.[14] On February 21, 2001, Nnenna Freelon earned a standing ovation for her live performance at the 43rd Annual Grammy Awards telecast in Los Angeles, performing Straighten Up and Fly Right.[15]


Year Title Genre Label Billboard[16]
1992 Nnenna Freelon Jazz Columbia 11
1993 Heritage 10
1994 Listen 20
1996 Shaking Free Concord
1998 Maiden Voyage 10
2000 Soulcall 13
2002 Tales of Wonder 7
2003 Church – Songs of Soul and Inspiration
Various Artists – Ooh Child – Nnenna Freelon
Gospel Utv Records 157
Live at The Kennedy Center, Washington D.C. Jazz Concord
2005 Blueprint of a Lady 13
2008 Better Than Anything
2010 Homefree

Grammy history

  • Career Nominations: 6
Nnenna Freelon Grammy Awards History
Year Category Genre Title Label Result
2005 Best Jazz Vocal Album Jazz Blueprint of a Lady –
Sketches of Billie Holiday
Concord Nominated
2001 Jazz Vocal Album Jazz Soulcall Concord Nominated
2001 Best Instrumental Arrangement
Accompanying a Vocal
Jazz Button Up Your Overcoat Concord Nominated
1998 Jazz Vocal Performance Jazz Maiden Voyage Concord Nominated
1996 Best Jazz Vocal Performance Jazz Shaking Free Concord Nominated
1992 Best Instrumental Arrangement
Accompanying a Vocal
Jazz Nnenna Freelon Concord Nominated

Source: Ed Keane Associates.[17]


  1. Nnenna Freelon AllMusic biography http://www.allmusic.com/artist/nnenna-freelon-mn0000870011
  2. DUBROVNIK SUMMER FESTIVAL, (Retrieved May 15, 2015)
  3. Gourse, Leslie. The Golden Age of Jazz in Paris and Other Stories About Jazz, Xlibris Corporation (2002), page 153 – ISBN 0-7388-2592-1
  4. "Interview with Nnenna's husband, architect Philip G. Freelon". Baltimore Sun. June 5, 2005. Retrieved August 18, 2007.
  5. "Billy Taylor's Jazz at The Kennedy Center". Retrieved August 18, 2007.
  6. "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz: Nnenna Freelon". NPR.org. National Public Radio. Retrieved December 26, 2017.
  7. Blackademics website
  8. "Faculty Profile – Deen Freelon". American University. Retrieved 27 September 2012.
  9. "I Want to Make Joy: Maya Freelon Asante". DareGreatly.com. Cadillac. February 7, 2017. Retrieved December 26, 2017.
  10. The Profound, Introspective and Supremely Talented, Nnenna Freelon, (Retrieved August 18, 2007)
  11. National Association of Partners in Education Archived 2007-08-18 at the Wayback Machine
  12. Baby Song Video
  13. Boston Globe – June 9, 2006, Freelon not afraid to voice individuality, (Retrieved August 18, 2007)
  14. IMDb: Resume Nnenna Freelon Bio
  15. Take 6 & Nnenna Freelon – Straighten Up and Fly Right on YouTube
  16. Billboard Chart History for Nnenna Freelon
  17. http://www.edkeane.com/downloads/nfreelon.bio.09-10-12.xtended.pdf
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