Nnenna Freelon Revives Jazz with a Flair

The six-time Grammy nominee will perform at 7 p.m. Nov. 19 in the Allen Theatre.

Written by Kate Lepard

Nnenna Freelon fights to preserve talent in an ever-changing music industry.

Nnenna Freelon fights to preserve talent in an ever-changing music industry.

In a world where Justin Bieber and Britney Spears rule the airwaves, you probably won't switch on your radio and hear the innovative harmonics of jazz.

Perhaps it has become a relic in today's society, but some performers still work to cultivate and revive a music genre known for its spontaneity, sensuality and appeal to the senses.

Jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon is one of those people. The six-time Grammy award nominee and jazz vocalist will make her first trip to West Texas to perform at 7 p.m., Nov. 19, in the Allen Theatre at Texas Tech University's Student Union Building (SUB).

"I don't think jazz will ever achieve the popular status that it did in World War II times," Freelon said, "but I still think that there's a real hunger for this music, for the art, for the expressiveness and just for the feeling that you get when someone is creating spontaneously in the moment."

A Non-Standard Approach

Not your typical jazz artist, Freelon has chosen not to stick to the "four swing four on the floor" rhythms – characteristic of most jazz music. She said her most recent album features elements of Latin flair and reggae rhythms.

For Freelon, challenging herself vocally requires stepping outside the lines. She respects the standards but chooses to approach them in a non-standard way. She said the greatest music touches in unexpected ways.

"Whenever I see any performance, no matter what art form it is, if it comes and hits you in the gut and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up that's good enough for me," Freelon said. "It doesn't matter what it is, if it moves me, that's what's golden for me."

As pyrotechnic concerts and belly-baring singers become increasingly more popular, these expressive, visceral performances might be harder to find. Vocalists like Freelon fight to preserve talent in an ever-changing music industry.

"It's not talent alone that wins the day," Freelon said.  "What we're seeing more these days is a cult of personality. When you ask someone to describe an artist, they talk about what they wear and their latest exploits, all of these things that have very little to do with their career, but which, at the same time, capture our attention. There's been a shift from the art of what someone does to the stuff that swirls around their personal life. Things that, to me, are just off the point."

The Journey

Born in Boston, and raised in Cambridge, Mass., Freelon grew up singing in church. During worship, people such as her mother inspired her to seek passion through music.

"The heartfelt expression of the music in church was something that really made an impression on me early," Freelon said. "So whenever I see that in any performer, the authentic expression of emotion whether it be happiness, sadness, grief, or whatever, that always moves me."

Since then, Freelon has made a name for herself in the music industry, sharing the stage with legendary performers such as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. But she said other performances also have impacted her star-studded career.

She specifically remembers performing with a group of economically disadvantaged high school students in Washington, D.C. She and the students collaborated on writing the music for their performance at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts – a moment Freelon said she will never forget.

For Freelon, mentoring youths has a special place in her heart. She often visits schools teaching young people to use their imagination and expand their curiosity.

"Imagination is like a muscle," Freelon said. "The more you exercise it, the stronger it gets. Even Einstein said imagination is more important than pure intelligence. Nothing that's been invented has ever been invented without asking, "What if?'"

Preparing to Perform

Freelon said all of her performances remind her of the challenges and transformations she has encountered along the musical journey she began more than 20 years ago.

"A lot of times people look back and don't want to listen to their early work, but it's all part of the process," Freelon said.  "I feel like I've done a lot of growing in the 20-plus years I've been out there, and I wouldn't change a single thing. I wouldn't be where I am unless I had been where I have been – it's really more about the journey than any particular destination."

Before every performance, Freelon can be found backstage quietly doing the breathing exercises she has learned from more than 20 years of practicing yoga. She said she prefers to prepare peacefully for a job she takes very seriously.

"For me, the performing stage is like being in church," Freelon said. "So, I honor the opportunity, and I look forward to the opportunity. But it's also sacred to me, so I take it with joy but with seriousness at the same time."

Once the curtain goes up, Freelon is all business. Every time she steps on the stage, she tries to connect with the audience – no matter their musical taste.

"My goals have never been to be popular or necessarily to make a lot of money," Freelon said. "They've been very personal, artistic goals, and really what's more appealing to me is to have a long career and to have the opportunity to work with great people and to grow over time. I love breaking down those barriers that we seem to think are there, but really aren't."

Next Performance

Joel Kotkin will perform Dec. 1.

Click here for more information on the Presidential Lecture & Performance Series.


J.T. & Margaret Talkington
College of Visual & Performing Arts

The J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts at Texas Tech offers a diverse array of programs and courses in art, music, theatre and dance.

The college seeks to prepare students who will be leaders in the profession by employing the highest standards in performance, teaching, research, and artistic and creative vision.

The college includes the:

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