Nnenna Freelon

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Nnenna Freelon
Freelon in 1998
Freelon in 1998
Background information
Birth nameChinyere Nnenna Pierce
Born (1956-07-28) July 28, 1956 (age 66)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
GenresJazz, pop
Years active1992–present
LabelsConcord, Columbia

Nnenna Freelon (born July 28, 1954) is an American jazz singer, composer, producer, and arranger.

Early life and education[edit]

Freelon was born Chinyere Nnenna Pierce to Charles and Frances Pierce in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she was raised.[1] 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...."[2] 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" and well as 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'."[2]


Freelon at the White House with Clark Terry in 2006

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.[3]

She has worked with 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. She has performed at Carnegie Hall, Hollywood Bowl, Ellington Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Apollo Theater, Montreux Jazz Festival, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Babysong workshops[edit]

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.[4] Freelon has maintained ties to her hospital-work as her jazz career has flourished. Her Babysong 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.[5]

Personal life[edit]

In 1979, she married architect Philip Freelon.[1] 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 associate professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying social media and politics.[8] Daughter Maya Freelon Asante is a visual artist.[9]

Awards and honors[edit]

  • Eubie Blake Award, Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute
  • Billie Holiday Award, Académie du Jazz


Year Title Genre Label Billboard[10]
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: Sketches of Billie Holiday 13
2008 Better Than Anything
2010 Homefree
2012 Christmas Brown Boulevard
2021 Time Traveler Origin Records

Grammy history[edit]

Nnenna Freelon Grammy Awards History
Year Category Genre Title Label Result
2022 Best Jazz Vocal Album Jazz Time Traveler Origin Nominated
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


  1. ^ a b "Interview with Nnenna's husband, architect Philip G. Freelon". Baltimore Sun. June 5, 2005. Retrieved August 18, 2007.
  2. ^ a b "Billy Taylor's Jazz". www.npr.org. Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  3. ^ The Profound, Introspective and Supremely Talented, Nnenna Freelon, (Retrieved August 18, 2007)
  4. ^ National Association of Partners in Education Archived 2007-08-18 at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Boston Globe – June 9, 2006, Freelon not afraid to voice individuality, (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". Retrieved 25 January 2020.
  9. ^ "I Want to Make Joy: Maya Freelon Asante". DareGreatly.com. Cadillac. February 7, 2017. Retrieved December 26, 2017.
  10. ^ Billboard Chart History for Nnenna Freelon

External links[edit]