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Nnenna Freelon

Nnenna Chinyere Freelon is a world-renowned jazz vocalist; she has recorded extensively and been nominated for numerous Grammy Awards. While this doesn't necessarily set her apart from other more prolific female jazz singers, there is one aspect of her career that does: she didn't begin recording until she was in her late thirties. She was born in Cambridge, MA, in 1954 as Nnenna Chinyere Pierce. She began singing at an early age in church, but didn't pursue music as a career until decades later. She graduated from Simmons College, with a degree in health care administration. She worked for a time in in social services for Durham, NC's hospital corporation. In 1979, she married Philip Freelon, an architect. The couple had three children before she began to consider a career in music. She studied with Yusef Lateef, developing her singing through listening to horn players. Her big break came in 1990 while attending the Southern Arts Federation's jazz meeting, and sitting in with Ellis Marsalis. Marsalis was doing A&R for Columbia Records' Dr. George Butler at the time, and asked the singer for a tape, which he passed on to Butler, who signed her. Her self-titled debut recording was released in 1992 and attracted mixed reviews due to Freelon's heavy stylistic debt to Sarah Vaughan -- though this was not entirely the vocalist's fault but her producer's. Her second album, a ballad-heavy collection entitled Heritage, was released in 1993, and was received by critics and fans alike as a jewel. Freelon truly established her own voice and style with her 1994 outing, Listen. it was her final recording for Columbia.