Jazz Singer Nnenna Freelon Shares Influences Over the years, jazz songstress and six-time Grammy Award nominee, Nnenna Freelon, has earned a reputation as a fierce singer and captivating performer. NPR's Tony Cox talks with Freelon about her career and how female artists have affected the genre.
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Jazz Singer Nnenna Freelon Shares Influences

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Jazz Singer Nnenna Freelon Shares Influences

Jazz Singer Nnenna Freelon Shares Influences

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is News & Notes. As we said in our last segment, the role of women in jazz history would not be complete without acknowledging the vocalists who continue to shape the music.

(Soundbite of song "I Won't Dance, Don't Ask Me")

Ms. NNENNA FREELON: (Singing) I won't dance, don't ask me. I won't dance, don't ask me. I won't dance, Senor, with you. My heart won't let my feet do things they should.

COX: That is jazz songstress and six-time Grammy Award-nominee Nnenna Freelon. Over the years, she's earned a reputation as a fierce singer and captivating performer. Nnenna, it is so nice to have you on News and Notes. Welcome.

Ms. FREELON: Thank you, Tony. It's a pleasure to be with you.

COX: As I understand it, I should be singing "Happy Birthday" to you. Your birthday's Monday, right?

Ms. FREELON: You know all the information, don't you?

COX: It just means we did our homework on you. Happy birthday, Nneena Freelon.

Ms. FREELON: Thank you, thank you.

COX: Talk about some of the older - not older, but other artists, male and female, who influenced you and your sound.

Ms. FREELON: Well, you just played one of them. Sarah Vaughan is a major influence. And there have been many instrumentalists as well. Dr. Youssef Latif, Wayne Shorter, you know, for their creative improvisational spirits, their freedom. Sarah, I love her voice. Just for the texture of the voice but also her musicality. This was a woman who played the piano and who actually played her voice. I think that's something that you'll find in common with jazz singers wherever you find them. They play their voice.

COX: You know, you started recording in the early 90s, I believe. What has changed for female artists since you began to record?

Ms. FREELON: I don't know that I can speak towards change across the industry except to say that there seemed to be more, greater variety of singers out there. There seemed to be a time when everyone wanted to be fit into a certain mold, an Ella Fitzgerald mold or a Sarah mold. But there seemed to be more unique voices out there who are really forging their own path and who are unafraid to, you know, spread their wings and try some different kinds of music that might not be associated with traditional jazz. I.e., tunes that were written before 1950.

COX: Now, you know, you just returned from Europe. Give us an idea of what your show is like. When you - when they'd say, and Nnenna Freelon, and you walk out there, what does the audience expect? And what do you give?

Ms. FREELON: I have a blessing of a wonderful band that's been together for about eight years. And I really love what I do. I have an awful lot of fun. I think my audience might be a little surprised at some of the choices, but we have a really good time with the show. We try to make the music open, accessible, fun, you know, sensuous, physical. I'm a very physical singer. And you know, I just - I'm really living my dream. I do what I love and I love what I do, and it was marvelous being in Europe. I had the opportunity to tour with Ivan Lins, who's a wonderful Brazilian composer, and so I was exposed to a brand-new audience. An audience and people who maybe never heard of Nnenna Freelon before, and I made some new friends in Europe, and Italy, and Spain, and in Turkey. So it was really a wonderful experience out there for three weeks. It was great.

COX: You've been nominated for a Grammy multiple times and we're going to play one of your Grammy-nominated songs right now and then talk about your ideas about where the music is going. This is called "Button Up Your Overcoat."

(Soundbite of song "Button Up Your Overcoat")

Ms. FREELON: (Singing) Button up your overcoat when the wind is free. Take good care of yourself, you belong to me. Eat an apple everyday...

COX: Nnenna, tell us. Where do you see jazz music heading?

Ms. FREELON: I think the future is really bright. We have everything to look forward to. I think the audience - the world audience, and we're talking about a real world audience now - they're hungry for some new stories, for some new interpretations. I feel really, really positive about jazz music across the board. I'm seeing more young people at audiences. I'm seeing people who are saying things like I've never heard of this music before. This is not what I thought jazz was. And so, it's opening up some new doors. It feels real good.

COX: You know, one of the things that we've been concentrating on this whole month of jazz is, the role of women are playing, and I don't know if you had a chance to hear all of the interview that we just did with Linda Dahl. One of the questions I've put to her, and she said I should put to someone like you, is, is the playing field level now?

Ms. FREELON: The playing field is never level. I don't think it was level for everyone who had desire back in the day. You have to have more than just talent and more than, you know, you have to really, really want this. And you have to almost be, take the position of I can't not do it. That's how I feel. I have a wonderful family. I have beautiful children, a great husband, but I also have a career. And I always tell people who ask me about it, you can have it all. You just can't have it all at the same time. Maybe.

COX: That's interesting. Well, you know, you started your jazz career after a previous successful career in the health industry.

Ms. FREELON: That's right. Health care administration.

COX: Yeah, I know. Does that have an impact? Did it make a difference, do you think, on the launch and the success of your career as a singer?

Ms. FREELON: Well, I think you have to - what I'm trying to do at this point in my life is to make, to bring everything into the same smooth line. I sing who I am, and my life as a wife and as a mother and as a person who has interest and love of the healthcare field, but also of healing in general. All of that finds its way in nooks and crannies in my music. I do workshops with young people. I also do a project called Baby Song where I encourage moms and dads to sing to their babies, and that brings the sort of health care vibration of what I do into the music.

COX: That sounds interesting.

Ms. FREELON: And some - I'm trying to blend. I'm trying to be a weevil.

COX: I got you. You know, you talked about singing to your children. Do you suggest singing to pregnant mothers, too? (unintelligible)

Ms. FREELON: Absolutely. Absolutely. They can hear - babies can hear from about six months gestation. This is the way language development begins. This is the way we teach. This is the way we connect, nurture, and love our young. And although we have many devices, many toys that bleep and beep and sing and all of that, it's really important to have that human element. So speaking to, reading to, singing to your very young child is extremely important.

COX: Nnenna Freelon, you are a fantastic talent. We appreciate you coming on News & Notes. Thank you very much.

Ms. FREELON: Thank you, Tony.

(Soundbite of song "Better Than Anything")

Ms. FREELON: (Singing) Better than sailing at midnight, better than diving for pearls. Better than skiing at Aspen, better than feeding the squirrels. Better than finding a horseshoe, better than losing your head.

COX: Jazz vocalist Nnenna Freelon. She's got two new CDs, "The Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary All-Stars" and "Better than Anything: The Quintessential Nnenna Freelon." She joined us from the Duke University Studios in Durham, North Carolina.

(Soundbite of song "Better Than Anything")

Ms. FREELON: (Singing) Better than anything, except being in love. Better than four sets of Dizzie, better than Count Basie's band...

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