Published December 2009
Pierce Freelon, having bounced and rocked his way through three frenetic songs, was already sweating through his organic clothes when it was time to bring a special guest to the stage.
“You know it wouldn’t be right if we came back to Durham without including the lovely vocals of six-time Grammy nominee, Mrs. Nnenna Freelon – aka Mommy,” Pierce says, drawing a cheer from the packed Duke Coffeehouse crowd, there for the official release of the debut full-length album, Silence Fiction from Pierce’s band, The Beast.
“How you feelin’, mom?”
A beam and a nod.
“She’s feelin’ good,” Pierce confirms. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is, like, three hours past her bedtime, so give her another round of applause.”
The crowd obliges and the band launches into "Once Again,” a perfect showcase for the simultaneously cohesive and juxtaposed sound that occurs when the gifted traditional jazz vocalist performs with the hip-hop/jazz/soul-fusion act that is The Beast.
“I was green back when I was 16, now I’m emceeing, living my dream,” Pierce raps. “Listen to the queen.”
Nnenna (pronounced NEE-nah) jumps in with an intricate run of scatting, showing off both her professionally honed chords and her improvisational skills. Pierce watches his mother, bobbing his head and smiling, before he joins her in the chorus. The song ends, and Nnenna flashes one last bright beam and waves at her son as she walks off stage and disappears into the throng.
Her work is done. This is the night of The Beast.
“Jazz sort of became the first language
I speak, through hip-hop the ancestors manifested through me.” – The Beast, Come Closer
At its core, this is a story about music, both as a tie that binds and as an outlet for individual expression. Music has been a constant in the lives of both Nnenna and her son, yet they’ve pursued their passion in decidedly different ways.
But this is also about family – specifically, about one of Durham’s most creative, close and flat-out cool clans.
The TV went off on Sunday evenings in the Freelon household and didn’t come back on until Friday evening. The week was devoted to work, to family time and, of course, to music.
“It allowed our children to focus not only on their studies, but also other art forms,” says Philip Freelon, a renowned architect whose company, The Freelon Group, is part of a team that will design the new National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution.
“We just recognized that we didn’t want television to be the driver of our kids’ creative outlet.”
It worked, clearly.
But it’s not as if Pierce took to his parents music right away.
“I didn’t appreciate jazz at a young age,” says Pierce. “But my mom showed me you don’t have to stereotype an entire genre because of one song you hear. [My siblings and I] didn’t like country, but we could get down on some Patsy Cline.”
Conversely, Nnenna learned not to judge Pierce’s interest in hip-hop as harshly as other adults tended to, like the time Pierce was taken to the principal’s office in elementary school and accused of belittling other students when he was really just reciting LL Cool J lyrics at their request. “Pierce was always a verytheatrical, outgoing person, and hip-hop fit with that,” Nnenna says. “I got that. But I listened along with him, encouraged him to think about exactly what he was hearing, to deconstruct it.”
That was typical of Nnenna’s guiding hand approach. She let her children do their own thing while making sure they stayed on the right path. Meanwhile, she put her music career on the back burner.
She didn’t release an album until 1992, well after all her kids had started school.
Pierce went on to college at UNC and later received a master’s degree at Syracuse, all the while pursuing his musical dreams in various forms. He attended the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz in Los Angeles before a desire to be closer to family brought him back to Durham, where he currently lives and works as an adjunct professor at UNC and Piedmont Community College.
But it wasn’t until last year that he felt worthy of actually working directly with his mom, who by then had Grammy nominations, collaborations with music legends from Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin, even a performance at the White House under her belt.
“It’s kind of been in the back of my mind as long as I’ve been in music,” Pierce said of a mother-son project. “I don’t think before The Beast I really had the opportunity to share a voice with her from a peer standpoint. Not on a ‘You’re-helping-me-out-because-I’m-your-son’ kind of level. She would have sang on my middle school recordings if I’d asked her to. Not to say we’re there yet. But the level of professionalism and sophistication of The Beast I think at least is comparable.”
“Would you see a Durham boy? No sir-ee. … You see, there’s so much more to me. There’s so much more to Beast.” – The Beast, “More to Me”
While still an undergrad at Carolina, Pierce befriended three members of UNC’s prestigious Jazz Studies program: pianist Eric Hirsh, bassist Peter Kimosh and drummer Stephen Coffman, who he had known in high school. A chance meeting between Pierce and Stephen morphed into an impromptu jam session, and immediately the group knew they had something special.
Eric says he was amazed at how “easy everything came. We wrote five songs in the first two-and-a-half hours together.”
Sitting in on a practice session, The Beast’s musical ability is on full display. They can just pick a key and roll with it. Though they may only be rehearsing one or two of their tracks in an hour-long session, you manage to never hear the same song twice, as each guy in the band throws out ideas for inspiration, ranging from Radiohead to Israeli jazz phenom Avishai Cohen.
Clearly, this is not your grandfather’s jazz, or your daddy’s hip-hop. But The Beast may have discovered something that you, your dad and your grandfather can all listen to and appreciate. The crowd at the album release party spoke to that. Middle-aged white professor types were jammed in with twentysomething hip-hop hipsters next to college kids of all races and musical tastes. “A lot of older people have told us our music is really accessible to them, which has been great,” Eric says. “Honestly, I think it’s because they are used to when songs were good. Not that we’re so much better than other bands, but we’ve found a sound that recalls that time, yet still has something to say today.”
“It’s not because she mama that I say that she’s the greatest. It’s not because she fine, and it’s not because she famous. It’s not because she six-time Grammy-nominated. It’s ’cause she find time for the family, tried to make a man of me, a man of Christianity, understand the music industry, fact and fantasy.” – The Beast, “Come Closer”
Though Nnenna had sat in a few times during The Beast’s live performances, it wasn’t until last October that she and the band began their short-lived formal collaboration with a memorable show at the Shakori Hills music festival. It was, to hear Nnenna and band members tell it, a magical performance.
The highlight was a performance of “Come Closer,” an ode to Nnenna. It sprang from a song called “You Inspire Me” in which he tracked Nnenna’s rise to fame verse by verse. When Pierce began playing it with The Beast, he added a verse that paralleled his own relationship with his mother and that of jazz and hip-hop, the tie that binds their music together.
“When I heard it, it was … I just don’t even have words. Just awesome,” Nnenna says. “You know, I think of it as my song, but when we performed it live together at Shakori Hills, there were women coming up to me with incredible stories of their sons. I’m getting chills just thinking about it.
“One woman came up to me and said her son was incarcerated,” Nnenna adds. “She was celebrating this moment she had just witnessed with us on stage, and she said she knew my son loves me, and even though her son is incarcerated she knew he loved her as well, and it became this very universal moment for me at that point. We’re both crying, and I think I finally realized how much of a need there was for that stream of energy. I feel like Pierce has hit on some nerve of a story that needed to be told.”
From there, Nnenna was featured on The Beast’s first two EPs but her presence influenced the band profoundly. “She definitely brings a professionalism to the music you don’t see in a lot of your friends’ local bands,” Pierce says. “Also in terms of rehearsals. she’s a rigorous perfectionist. She’s very, very serious about the craft.”
Nnenna also helped the band navigate the business side of being musicians.They formed an LLC and registered with Broadcast Music, Inc., which collects licensing fees for songwriters. They’ve marketed their new album in interesting ways, appearing on NPR’s The State of Things and forming a partnership with Durham sustainable clothier Vert & Vogue. (Those efforts are in keeping with the band’s progressive politics, featured prominently on the save-the-Earth anthem “Four Seasons” and the call for unity in “Interfaith Dialogue.”) “That’s something I definitely took out of her book,” Pierce says of Nnenna’s business acumen. “Understanding the business side of things was never a priority of any band I was a part of prior to The Beast.”
But her greatest influence is showing how to connect with an audience – the true mark of a pro.“When she’s performing, if you look to the right or the left, no one’s typing on their cell phone or falling asleep,” Pierce says. “They’re on the edge of their seats.”
Nnenna stepped off that Duke Coffeehouse stage almost exactly a year after that auspicious show at Shakori Hills. Though she and Pierce will continue to collaborate here and there – he’ll be on her next album performing a re-arrangement of the seminal James Weldon Johnson anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” – the formal musical partnership between the jazz legend and her son’s up-and-coming band was as brief as it was sweet.
But her influence will endure. Inside the packed room at the album-release party, the few actually sitting were bouncing on the edge of their seats, not a texter in sight. DM