WINnovation 2017: Nnenna Freelon

Nnenna Freelon
Musician, educator, actor, philanthropist, non-profit founder

Nnenna Freelon is a world-renowned, six-time Emmy award winning jazz musician. She is also an educator, actor, philanthropist, nonprofit founder, wife, and mother.

In each of those roles, the Durham resident is an innovator, bringing creativity and originality to her art, her philanthropy, and her relationships.

“There are two themes running through my life,” Freelon said one recent morning. “One is dynamic creative partnerships and how they play out, whether that’s in your band, or marriage, or as a mother.” Another theme, she says, is “our challenge right now to live in this moment, to stay in this moment, to thrive in this moment.”

Freelon’s moment includes her husband’s recent diagnosis with ALS. He is Phil Freelon, the celebrated architect whose Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture opened to international acclaim last year. (He was also the subject of Walter’s cover profile in June). Together, the Freelons have founded the Freelon ALS Fund to raise money for ALS research.

“We are engaging in ways to thrive,” Nnenna Freelon says. “We are living this moment. How do you do that when things are going well, and you’ve got your health, and what you think is an unlimited amount of time? You live in accordance with that. And then when things shift, you still have to live.”

The work of the foundation is central to their lives, she says. It’s interesting to note “how your values, your estimation of what’s most important now keeps changing. Things that were so important to me 20 years ago are not important now. I was career-minded, I wanted to make my mark as a woman, as a human being. I wanted to win a Grammy. They were goals that had to do with stature in the world, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Today, though, Freelon says, “The idea of legacy is coming. What do I want to leave? Now I’m sort of seeing the other side of the mountain: What do I want my life to stand for?”