Nnenna Freelon

(photo credited to WrightDesign75)

A health care worker singing jazz? A jazz singer who is deeply involved in health care? That seems like an unlikely combination but it is the life story of Nnenna Freelon. 

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nnenna began singing at an early age in church, yet graduated from Simmons College with a degree in health care administration and moved to North Carolina with her husband Phil Freelon, world-renowned architect. She worked for the Durham County Hospital Corporation. It wasn’t until her passion for singing, combined with this health care experience, planted the seeds of bringing health through music and led to her full-time pursuit in music. 

The turning point in her musical career occurred when she met Ellis Marsalis in 1990. While attending the Southern Arts Federation’s jazz meeting, she met the renowned pianist and educator, who saw her talent, and was instrumental in her signing to Columbia Records by Dr. George Butler in 1992. Quickly establishing her own voice and style, Freelon recorded three albums for the label while continuing to forge her passions for art, education and health care – with her new position as National Spokesperson for Partners In Education nationwide, her unique clinic workshops such as Babysong for young expectant and new mothers and their infants, and by collaborating with many artists including T.S. Monk, Take 6.

  Nnenna signed with Concord Records in 1996, earning another of her many Grammy nominations for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. In 2002 she released a tribute to Stevie Wonder, receiving another Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Her song, “If I Had You” was featured in the 2000 film, What Women Want starring Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt. She recorded her first live album in 2005 and soon was honored by the Recording Academy with another Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. In 2021 Freelon released Time Traveler, a collection of songs that she and her late husband love and grew up with, and earned another Grammy Nomination for Best Vocal Jazz Album. 

During her career, Nneena has performed at The White House, headlined the Asia Pacific Economic Summit for three hundred Presidents and Head of States, toured the United States as a spokesperson for the National Association of Partners in Education, and starred in the show Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating the Music of Ray Charles. She has toured with Charles and many other jazz greats such as Ellis Marsalis, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Earl Klugh, Take 6, and Dianne Reeves. 

After the passing of her husband resulting from ALS in 2019, and losing her sister Deborah Pierce in 2020 to cancer, Nneena needed to find new ways to share her feelings and express her emotions. To share her journey and insights, Freelon developed a new podcast called “Great Grief with Nnenna Freelon” through WUNC Public Radio, PBS affiliate in North Carolina. Freelon wants people to know that painful experiences have the potential to make you a better person and she does just that! 

As one of Nnenna’s idols, Aretha Franklin, said of Nnenna, “If you’re looking for great music and great entertainment, look no further than Nnenna Freelon.”