April 3, 2002 – Nnenna Freelon is a jazz singer, and that's what her concert Friday night at the St. John School of the Arts is all about. But her artistry is also about journeys of the heart and the soul.
She's won the Billie Holiday Award from France's Academie du Jazz and the Eubie Blake Award from New York's Cultural Crossroads. She's been nominated for two Soul Train "Lady of Soul" awards and for five Grammy's — two last year for her album "Soulcall" and her track on it of the oldie "Button Up Your Overcoat" with some new hip-hop influence. ("I am so in favor of any fresh way of looking at the world," she says. "You can't always be looking in the rear-view mirror.")
She has performed at the Society of Singers "Ella Awards," the Stephen Sondheim tribute at Carnegie Hall, "Divas Simply Singing" fund-raisers for AIDS charities, Variety — The Children's Charity, on the 2001 Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, and at the 2001 Grammy Awards show. A year and a half ago, she made her film debut — as herself, crooning a romantic tune to Mel Gibson and Helen Hunt in "What Women Want."
Recently, she has been hard at work on her new CD coming out in June. Titled "Tales of Wonder," it's a tribute to Stevie Wonder, whose work she has included on all of her previous albums. It's a project she is "very excited about," she says.
A Los Angeles Times reviewer wrote that Freelon "need not be heralded as the next Sarah or the next anyone. She is simply the now Nnenna, for whom comparison is no longer necessary."
Freelon has been singing publicly since she made her solo debut in church with "Amazing Grace" at the age of 7 — when the applause and "Amen!" responses persuaded her on the spot that "I want more of that!" (as she says with a grin). But when it came time to prepare for a career, she got her college degree in health care administration and worked for a few years in that field before surrendering to her muse.
Her first album, in 1992, titled simply "Nnenna Freelon," brought her first Grammy nomination, for "Stella by Starlight." After that came "Heritage" in 1993, "Listen" in 1994, "Shaking Free" in 1996 (Grammy nomination No. 3), "Maiden Voyage" in 1998 and "Soulcall" in 2001. The "Who's Who" of talent she has worked with includes Billy Taylor, Ellis Marsalis, Dianne Reeves, Ray Charles, Al Jarreau, Joe Beck and Kirk Whalum.
Leaving the health-care field didn't mean abandoning her caring side. In addition to performing, teaching, writing, arranging and recording music, she serves as spokeswoman for the National Association of Partners in Education, an umbrella organization for some seven million people across the nation who volunteer in more than 400,000 community-school partnering programs in support of arts education.
On the "Soulcall" album is a pop-gospel song that she wrote and performs with Sounds of Blackness that's called "One Child at a Time." It has become the anthem for Partners in Education and its philosophy that "each and every one of us can make a difference — one child at a time."
"My own childhood was magical, full of curiosity, creativity and a sense of safety, a time for me to discover who I am," she says. "So many children don't have that kind of childhood. I don't have a lot of resources, but I do have a mind, I do have a voice, I do have an audience. And I can draw attention to things that are important."
Freelon sometimes tours with her four-piece band, but for her Virgin Islands concerts she's appearing with one band member with whom she often performs as a duo — pianist Takana Miyamoto, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music who also has worked with Roy Hargrove, Joe Lovano and Christian McBride. This will be their first visit to the Virgin Islands.
Freelon's first name, pronounced "Nina," is what her mother named her. It is a West African word meaning "first-born daughter, which I am," she says.
There will be an opening act Friday evening — a vocal number performed by St. Johnian Henry Powell with Harvey Warbel on piano. Powell, Freelon and art teacher/painter Marcia Reed-Hendricks, who lives in Easthampton, Mass., but is a regular St. John visitor, are old friends, and that has something to do with how Friday's concert came about.
School of the Arts director Ruth "Sis" Frank explains that Freelon's daughter attends Williston Academy in Massachusetts, "and one of the teachers there is Marcia Reed-Hendricks." When Reed-Hendricks told Frank that she ought to have Freelon do a concert, Frank got in touch with her manager, "and we went from there."
Local jazz radio show host "Hurricane Harry" Illingworth will introduce Freelon. Among those in the audience will be Freelon's sister, her agent, and Carlo Pagnotta, the director of Italy's renowned Umbria Jazz Festival. Pagnotta, who is vacationing with his family on St. John, "discovered" local steel pannist Victor Provost on a visit a few years ago and booked the teen-ager to perform at the next festival.
Freelon says she might or might not include "Button Up Your Overcoat" on tropical St. John. "I usually make my choices about repertoire once I arrive and feel the vibe," she explains.
Friday's concert at the St. John School of the Arts begins at 8 p.m. Tickets are $30 for general admission and $25 for students. They're being sold at Connections in Cruz Bay and will be available at the door, space permitting. Seating is open and reservations are not taken by telephone. To learn more, call 779-4322 or 776-6777.
Nnenna Freelon also will perform Sunday afternoon on St. Thomas in a brunch concert at Tillett Gardens. For information, call 775-1929 or e-mail to Tillett Gardens.
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