- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 8, 2002

NEW YORK — Nnenna Freelon became a "jazz mom" almost 20 years ago when she gave up a secure career as a healthcare administrator to follow her dream of becoming a singer.

With the support of her architect-husband, she paid her dues, attending jazz workshops, singing at restaurants and rehearsing at their Durham, N.C., home to save on the costs of a baby sitter for their three children.

"Being a mother has made me more relaxed about things," says Miss Freelon in a phone interview while on a national tour to promote her new CD. "We sometimes take ourselves very, very seriously in jazz music but music has got to be fun. My children have really taught me a lot about what's fun."

Miss Freelon whose first name means "first-born daughter" in the language of Nigeria's Ibo tribe made her breakthrough in 1992 when she was signed by Columbia and did three albums. Her last three CDs for the Concord label have each earned Grammy nominations, including two for 2000's "Soulcall."

She reached an even wider audience when she performed at the 2001 Grammy Awards and made a cameo appearance in the Mel Gibson movie "What Women Want."

Her new CD, "Tales of Wonder," mixes jazz and soul as Miss Freelon puts her own stamp on 12 tunes from the Stevie Wonder songbook. Her selections range from the familiar "My Cherie Amour" and a funky "Superstition" to the more obscure "Black Orchid" (from the "Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants" album) as well as Wonder songs that were hits for others, including "The Tears of a Clown" (Smokey Robinson & the Miracles).

Q: What inspired you to do "Tales of Wonder"?

A: I've always loved Stevie's music. He writes great melodies, and because I see myself as a storyteller, his stories are great, too. I've never done a tribute album to anybody before. I think it's appropriate that Stevie be the first one because his music represents my generation's standards. I love Ellington, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers and Hart. But Stevie's music feels very close to my heart in terms of my growth and development.

Q: How do his songs speak to you?

A: He's set a high standard for me personally in terms of dealing with material that is positive music, that celebrates life and love, both in intimate relationships and also love of planet, love of man.

Q: Why did you give up a career in health administration for the risky life of a jazz singer?

A: Singing is something that I've done all my life, but I put it on the back shelf because I thought it was just going to be too difficult. I was working in the planning department of a hospital, doing number crunching and surveys. I knew I wasn't in the right situation for me emotionally or spiritually. It took the hopes I had tied up in my children to bring me to the realization that I had to be the best example of reaching for something special. And it took the support of my husband, who said, "Go for it we'll work it out."

Q: How have you managed to balance your roles as a singer and mother?

A: There are days that I've felt like I was really handling it well and others when I felt quite out of balance. But I really honestly feel that being a mother has made me a better jazz singer and vice versa. We think of improvisation as coming up with creative solutions to problems, and that's what motherhood is about. You have to be flexible and live in the moment.

Q: What are you trying to teach with your Babysong workshops, which encourage mothers to sing to their infants?

A: (I am trying to teach) the value of the human voice, which has a power to nurture, heal and teach. Singing is the one art form that combines language and melody, so it stimulates both sides of the brain. A human interaction, singing to your baby, however sloppily you do it, is good, because the baby is not a critic yet. Your voice is the most melodious to them. It is familiar and correct. The baby's not saying, "Man, she can't sing on pitch." Believe me, when they're 16, they will tell you all about how uncool you are.

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