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In the Jazz Tradition: Nnenna Freelon

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Nnenna Freelon does not simply interpret the standards of the great American songbook. She reinvents them entirely, stretching their melodies and pushing and pulling at their meters until they are reborn. Whether singing the songs of Billie Holiday on her GRAMMY-nominated Blueprint of a Lady or paying tribute to Lena Horne in her show Lena: A Lovesome Thing, her warm voice glides from stately sophistication to kinetic joy, delighting in the possibility of the tune at hand. Concurrently raised on a stack of jazz records and in the grand gospel tradition of her childhood Massachusetts church, Freelon took time to listen, learn, and develop her own approach before recording her debut in her late thirties. In the quarter century since, she has been nominated for six GRAMMYS, entertained at the White House, become an accomplished actor, and earned a reputation, according to NPR, as “one of the greatest vocalists to come along in decades.” Freelon is a creative and philanthropic force in Durham, where she has lived since 1978, and she provides a fitting invocation for In the Jazz Tradition, with hometown artistry as rich as that of any jazz singer in the world.

In October 2017, Duke Performances staged an elaborate one-hundredth birthday party for one of North Carolina’s most inventive artists and a true pioneer of jazz, Thelonious Monk. For ten days, many of jazz’s greatest musicians filled the arts venue and former warehouse Durham Fruit & Produce with the sounds of Monk’s songbook, sometimes playing it faithfully and sometimes splintering it entirely. There were engaging talks, spontaneous improvisations, and a listening room where fans could spend time with Monk’s records. Raleigh artist André Leon Gray turned the building into a shrine to Monk’s genius and a playhouse for his legacy. Durham brimmed with “moments when the spirit of Monk’s piano playing got called up and shocked back to life in the air of the present day,” according to a rave review of the festival in The New York Times. This season, Duke Performances returns to the historic warehouse for another extended musical meditation, In the Jazz Tradition, a seven-day series featuring some of the most important women vocalists in jazz today. In recent years, a legion of jazz singers has drawn inspiration from flashpoints in race relations and the struggle for gender equality, commanding a renewed sense of urgency with their music and reaffirming the relevance and popular appeal of jazz itself. Durham visual artist Stacy Lynn Waddell — who, much like the series’ singers, explores how traditional forms can express contemporary themes — will transform the space, setting the scene for a timely update on familiar jazz traditions.

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