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Nnenna Freelon uses music to travel through time and process her grief

Nnenna Freelon
Chris Charles
Origin Records
Nnenna Freelon

Grammy-nominated jazz singer, composer, actress and playwright Nnenna Freelon has suffered many losses over the past few years. She's found a new burst of creativity with her latest album, Time Traveler, and a new podcast.

Nnenna Freelon put her career on hold to care for her husband of 40 years, architect Phil Freelon, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2016.

Shortly after Phil died in 2019, Nnenna lost her younger sister to cancer, and her dog, Basie, also came to the end of his life.

The pandemic provided Freelon with a lot of free time to ponder her losses. She came to realize that dealing with grief is a long process that can take many forms.

For an artist like Freelon, music had to be part of the process. She recorded a collection of songs about time and songs that she and her husband loved and grew up with. The album is called Time Traveler. It's on the Seattle-based label Origin Records, and it has been nominated for a Grammy award for Best Vocal Jazz Album.

To share her journey and insights, Freelon is also hosting a podcast called "Great Grief" through WUNC Public Radio in North Carolina.

Freelon wants people to know that painful experiences have the potential to make you a better person.

“I’m just learning that grief has powerful gifts that she can give you. But not unless you sit with her,” Freelon told Essence magazine. “First of all, you can’t outrun her because she can wait. … Grief is just waiting for you to turn around and say, ‘OK, let’s talk.’” 

Nnenna Freelon - Time Traveler Mini Doc

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.