Singer Nnenna Freelon stopped being the local-girl-makes-good a long time ago. Since her debut disc appeared on Columbia Records, her 14-year ascent to the top of the jazz mountain has been slow, steady and utterly predictable. Everyone she met upon her arrival in Durham in 1982 realized immediately that she was something special–not as a singer necessarily, but as a person. To this day–after six Grammy nominations and myriad awards from the Academie du Jazz, Soul Train and all points in between–Freelon remains humble to the core, the ultimate anti-diva.
If you ask Freelon to describe herself, she might answer: “Good mother, loving wife, solid singer.”
But she would be incorrect about the last one, because, in fact, she’s almost peerless as an interpreter of American Popular Song. Always in tune, she swings relentlessly and articulates like nobody’s biz. Lyricists love her because the listener understands every word, no matter how far she might compress or stretch a syllable. And here’s the best part: Freelon is still a work in progress–changing, improvising, improving, even now.
Her 10th and latest CD might be her best yet. Another Grammy nominee, Blueprint of a Lady: Sketches of Billie Holiday (Concord) sounds like no other tribute to the matron saint of jazz singing. You’ll recognize the songs–from the redemptive “God Bless the Child” to the eerie “Strange Fruit”–but the arrangements, fresh and funky to the bone, bear no resemblance to Holiday’s own recordings. For those who would prefer to hear a contemporary Lady Day sound-alike, try Madeleine Peyroux. Freelon, on the other hand, interprets Holiday’s complicated muse–and emerges as absolutely her own woman.
Freelon and I spoke last week on a phone line bridging Orange and Durham counties, two old friends sharing an admiration for the late Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959), better known as Billie Holiday.
Independent:Can you give me the skinny on Billie, according to Nnenna?
Nnenna Freelon: Woman. Singer. Songwriter. Artist. Loved by fellow musicians. She cursed, shot dice and smoked cigarettes. She was kind of tall, about 5’7″.
“Big-boned,” as they say.
Exactly. Imposing, too–with a certain Southern demeanor. She was not too girly to hang with the guys. Disarmingly gorgeous, but she would fight you. Not a woman that I would cross, mind you. But if Billie loved you, she loved you to death.
She was not lucky in love.
That’s right. Singers work at night. At 3 o’clock in the morning, you know, all the good guys are somewhere else. People always ask, “How come Billie hung out with such bad, abusive men?” Well, I’ve been there, out on the road. After the last set, who’s left out there in the club? The answer is nobody … nobody but all the people your mother warned you about. The church-going guy with the white house and the picket fence ain’t hangin’ [laughs].
You’ve been touring and performing Blueprint of a Lady: The Once and Future Life of Billie Holiday, an hour-long multi-media presentation with music, dancers and a backdrop by Romare Bearden. Is that what’s on tap Friday at the Carolina Theatre?
No, it’ll be just me and my band. This is my annual concert date in this town. I only do one a year. I learned a long time ago that if you work consistently in Durham, it’s difficult to put together a special concert like this one. So when people ask me, “Hey, when you gonna do something around here?”–well, here it is. I have so many longtime friends and family here that we’ll have to play some personal favorites. Most of the show, however, will come from the Blueprint of a Lady CD.
Since the beginning of your career, you’ve often been compared to Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and other vocalists with outstanding technique. So it’s surprising to me that you would record a tribute to Billie Holiday, a singer who was better known as a stylist than a technician. Billie wasn’t about “chops.”
Let’s be honest: She didn’t have what someone would call “the greatest voice,” but she was one hell of a storyteller. She was about wit, drama and especially nuance. She sang music that lives in the spaces between the notes. She communicated with silence. Put it all together and you have a singer that created beautiful art.
Billie also proves that old adage that anyone can sing. We all have preconceived notions of what is a great singer. Maria Callas. Ella Fitzgerald, maybe. But what they’ve got is just one aspect of the thing. There’s also that gritty, heartfelt voice of some anonymous blues singer that touches you as deeply as any polished voice. That’s why I think vocal music is so compelling.
I’ve always been a fan of–for lack of a better term–non-singing singers. As I grow older, I enjoy Dylan more. And I’ve always enjoyed Neil Young.
Hey, Neil Young’s latest record is killin’!
Billie Holiday was from Baltimore. So were two of your most important teachers when you started performing 24 years ago in Durham. Did you think about [singer] Bus Brown and [pianist] Brother Yusuf Salim as you investigated Billie?
Absolutely. When you’re reaching for a connection with someone that you love from afar but never knew, you reach out for any tie with that person. I’ve been touring with the Count Basie Orchestra, and I talked with musicians in that band who knew Billie. There’s some video of her, and I studied that. And, of course, there’s a lot of inaccurate information about Billie that’s out there. So I had to search for the truth. I wanted to get to know the woman.
So you were less concerned with the Holiday legends of substance and sexual abuse–and more interested in the African-American woman who leaped over certain social barriers, right?
The negative things you mentioned obviously influenced her, so I did not gloss over them. In fact, all of that comes out in her music–and she was transparent enough as a performer to let us peek into her life. All the hurt came out in her art. When she got handed something that was kind of rotten–a tough childhood, for example–she ran with it.
I’m not a proponent of the myth that you have to live a hard life to sing with real meaning. But I do think that whatever difficulties she had, she put them into her art. That’s a highly intelligent thing to do. Billie’s personal life could have ground her to a halt. She could have been mumbling in some dark corner, a bag lady. But she not only achieved many of her goals, she exceeded them. And she inspired many people in the process, me included.
Have you ever dreamed of sitting down with Billie? Just the two of you over cups of coffee, you know, with your CD playing on the stereo. How would she react to the music? What would she say? Would she like it?
The one song that I wrote for the record, “Only You Will Know,” is actually an imagined conversation between Billie and me. So I can only guess what she might say based on the way she lived. I do know this: A lot of singers have tried to imitate her by doing things like singing soft and close to the mic, rolling the ends of notes up or downward and so on. She hated that, that imitative thing.
Etta James told me a story about singing in front of Billie one night. Etta was young and probably a little nervous when she saw Billie sitting at the bar. Etta idolized Lady Day, and performed a tune that was a hit for Billie. In the middle of the song, Etta hears all kind of noise from the back of the club, a real ruckus, tables overturning and stuff. Billie had kicked up a fuss and left in a huff. Later that night, the two spoke, and Billie told Etta, “You’ve got a great voice, but take my advice and do your own thing. OK?”
Nnenna Freelon and her band will perform tunes associated with Billie Holiday plus her own songbook at the Carolina Theatre in Durham on Friday, March 3 at 8 p.m. The quartet includes Brandon McCune, Wayne Batchelor, Beverly Botsford and Kinah Boto (formerly Woody Williams). For tickets, try 560-3030 or