The golden rule

Nnenna Freelon tells me that the best way for beginners to experience jazz is to listen to great vocalists like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

“The vocalist,” she says, “is a wonderful way to come to this music, because everyone can identify with a voice. It’s a little harder to identify with a saxophone, or another instrument, but the voice is the instrument that we all share as humans, and we all know if the singing sounds good or not, even if we don’t know the tune.”

But after spending a few days in the company of Freelon’s latest album, Maiden Voyage (Concord Records, 1998), this jazz novice, at least, selects Freelon herself as an exemplary guide.

Simply put, Nnenna (“Nee-nuh”) gives good voice. From her full-bodied rendition of Nina Simone’s “Four Women” to the soothing sounds of the CD’s closing track, an original jazz lullaby titled “Swing Me Down,” Freelon offers an impressive range of vocal flavors that vary as widely as the female performers she chooses to cover on this, her fifth and most recent album. Interpreting the lyrics of blues great Sippie Wallace, folkie Buffy Sainte-Marie and soul singer Laura Nyro, among others, she creates a mood that’s thoroughly her own.

And relishing the result has nothing to do with knowing who Dizzy Gillespie was.

Fusing disparate sources seems to be a hot theme for Freelon; the three-time Grammy nominee (and winner of the Billie Holiday Award from France’s Academie du Jazz) would also have you know that her bygone toils in health-care administration were not entirely for naught.

“In a weird kind of way, [it was] great preparation,” she insists. “I have had several occasions to use my accounting background [and] marketing [skills]; how to speak effectively and write well, and all those kind of things, come in handy for artists who, especially at the beginning of their career, promote themselves.”

Although she’d been singing in church choirs since age 7 and osmosing big-band standards probably since birth (thanks to her musical father), Freelon’s career as a jazz singer did not emerge till later in life.

“I didn’t really come to jazz seriously until I was an adult, after I was married and started a family,” she reveals. Having left her native Boston for love (in the figure of a Durham, N.C., architect) in the late ’70s, Freelon traded in graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill to become a mother of three.

“I think a certain level of maturity, the early exposure, and the opportunity the music presents to express who you are, individually, as a person — those three elements together made it an irresistible choice for me when I started looking at what I really wanted to do with my life,” she explains.

Freelon’s big break came when she met jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis at a Southern Arts Federation conference. He heard her music and promptly shepherded her to Columbia Records, where she recorded her first (self-titled) CD in 1992. And so began the road that would soon have her opening for musical greats Al Jarreau and Ray Charles, not to mention touring internationally with her own band, which features pianist Takana Miyamoto, bassist Wayne Batchelor, drummer Woody Williams and percussionist Beverly Botsford.

But singing to the world constitutes only a fraction of Freelon’s mission. She also serves as the national spokesperson for Partners in Education, and has been called “the leading female jazz educator.” Freelon recently wrote and recorded the organization’s new theme song; titled “One Child at a Time,” the song expresses her belief that “the world can be changed by anybody’s effort to mentor or be supportive [to] or help one child.”

“I do a lot of work in schools,” Freelon explains. “There is such a need for support for our kids in our public schools, and the arts is one way to reach a broad spectrum of children who might not be reached otherwise. I see it as not just a nice thing that someone can do — I see it as a real strategy for survival.

“Little children are the most creative people on the planet — until we begin to shut them down with all kinds of fill-in-the-blank, multiple-choice, get-the-right-answer, get-an-A methodology,” she adds feelingly, noting that her children exercised quite an authority over her own early sound: “Growing up as an artist, and growing as a mother at the same time, was very much an influence on the kinds of tunes that I chose — and just the freedom with which I felt I could play with the music. I was around people who played all the time, and were very free with their voices and very free with ideas.”

When asked about musical influences, though, the singer hesitates to limit herself. “Usually when someone says, ‘Oh, who’s influenced you?’ and you call out some names, then they look for the signs of those influences in your voice, and it’s not necessarily there,” she explains. “[In] Maiden Voyage, you won’t hear much evidence of a Nina Simone or a Laura Nyro necessarily in my voice, but their words are very inspirational to me.”

After confessing to adore the vocal style of Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, Freelon returns to the importance of the words themselves: “I love a great lyric, I love a great story, so all the great songwriters, like Johnny Mercer and Duke Ellington and Cole Porter, all these people are just masters, as far as I’m concerned.”

And, if she could perform with someone — anyone — for one night? “Louis Armstrong,” is the immediate answer.

And even I knew who that was.

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