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Jazz Legend Makes Annenberg Center Debut

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Nnenna Freelon Herbie Hancock calls her “a wonderful song stylist."

Melba Moore says that “she's a reincarnation of Ella Fitzgerald."

And Aretha Franklin proclaims “if you're looking for good entertainment and very hip music, be sure to check out Nnenna Freelon."

And Philadelphia audiences will be able to do just that as the six-time Grammy Award nominee makes her Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts debut on April 1 at 8 p.m.

Freelon will be singing songs from her newest CD, “Home Free," as well as many other standards she's well known for and loves.

Growing up, Freelon's love of music began to develop as she sang in church in her native Cambridge, Mass. She says she started singing in church like so many others, and some of her early influences included the famous and not so famous.

“I loved listening to artists like Nina Simone and Billy Eckstine, artists whose records were played by my parents at home. I think it's very important to expose your children to a wide musical environment, and I'm grateful that my parents did just that."

But regardless of the exposure and the need to sing, Freelon never believed she could have a successful career with music. So, after relocating to Durham, North Carolina, she began working in hospital administration, despite her husband's urging that she should try and fulfill a lifelong dream.

“And then there was my grandmother's advice which was to 'bloom where you're planted,' meaning you don't have to go to New York or Los Angeles. You can sing where you are."

Suddenly, all the advice began to fall into place and make sense. And after making a name for herself on the local scene, in 1990 she went to the Southern Arts Federation's jazz meeting and met Ellis Marsalis.

“That was a big turning point for me," she says. “He was the person who represented the larger world, and his friendship and belief in me was invaluable. He was a wonderful friend and a great mentor."

Over the years, Freelon's work has been recognized by many others as well. She has been awarded the Eubie Blake Award from the Eubie Black National Jazz Institute and the Billie Holiday Award from the Academie du Jazz.

Freelon has performed a film soundtrack, remaking Frank Sinatra's classic “Fly Me to the Moon," for “The Visit," a movie starring Billy Dee Williams. She also had a cameo as a nightclub singer in the Mel Gibson romantic comedy “What Women Want."

In addition, on April 12, the state of North Carolina will be honoring her with the State Arts Award for her work in art advocacy. And on April 15 she'll be traveling to Brazil to do a benefit.

“You know, after all these years I've realized that wherever the Creator takes you, that's where you are meant to be," Freelon says. “So no matter who I share the stage with—Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Al Jarreau or many others—I know I wouldn't be here unless I was meant to be. What a blessing that I'm able to do what I love doing."

And today, Freelon concludes, “When I step out on stage and look out at all the faces looking back at me, I wonder at my ability to connect with people I have come to know through my music. It's so humbling to realize that my music, my art form gives me the opportunity to connect in a way I never could have before. What a thrill."


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