Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Wilson, Cassandra (Marie Fowlkes)

Singer Cassandra Wilson has combined her experiences in jazz, folk and rhythm 'n' blues into an appealing and succesful blend. Rooted in jazz musicality and tradition, her crossover appeal defies categories and has given her remarkable freedom in her choices of material.

Cassandra Marie Fowlkes was born on December 4, 1955 in Jackson, Mississippi. Cassandra’s father Herman was a professional musician and her mother Mary was an elementary schoolteacher. Herman was primarily a bassist, but eventually went on to learn the cello, guitar, saxophone, and violin. Herman put his musical career on the back burner after Cassandra was born and became a high school music teacher.

As a child, Wilson’s father filled their home with the sounds of jazz while her mother enjoyed playing Motown. This combination soon helped her turn her attention towards music. She became particularly enamored with jazz after hearing trumpeter Miles Davis’s album Sketches of Spain. Soon after, she began to study classical piano and eventually began to play the guitar at the age of eleven. Cassandra’s father showed her a few guitar chords and from there she began to compose her own songs.

Throughout her high school years, Wilson listened to the popular singer-songwriters of the sixties, which included Bob Dylan and Judy Collins. Cassandra found the music of singer Joni Mitchell to be particularly inspiring, and her work became a strong influence. During junior high school, Cassandra began to play the clarinet, participating in school marching and concert bands. Throughout her high school years, Cassandra performed with a folk trio.

While captivated with music, Wilson’s mother encouraged her to go to college. Upon graduating from high school, Cassandra enrolled at Milsaps College, then transferred to Jackson State University. where she studied mass communication. While in college, Cassandra performed with rhythm 'n' blues and pop bands, and by 1975, she was singing professionally. Wilson graduated from Jackson State in 1980.

While still living in Jackson, Wilson began to perform with the Black Arts Music Society whilst studying with drummer Alvin Fielder Jr., one of the group’s founders. In 1981, Cassandra moved to New Orleans in order to take a position at a local television station. While in New Orleans, she continued to study music with saxophonist Earl Turbinton Jr. and pianist Ellis Marsalis. The same year, Cassandra married Anthony Wilson resulting in a change to her last name.

In 1982, Wilson and her husband moved north to East Orange, New Jersey, initially because her husband accepted a job in his uncle’s mayoral administration. Upon their arrival, Cassandra found it difficult to find work in the television industry. As a result, Cassandra dedicated her time to finding musical opportunities in New York City. During this time, Cassandra took ear-training lessons from trombonist Grachan Moncur III.

Shortly after, Wilson began to perform with M-Base, the avant-garde collective led by saxophonist Steve Coleman. Coleman was impressed with Wilson’s voice after hearing her at a jam session singing the standard “Cherokee.” Coleman encouraged her to cut loose from the typical repertoire associated with jazz.

Cassandra further became engrossed in the New York scene and began to perform with the Black Rock Coalition. Founded by guitarist Vernon Reid, the organization is dedicated to the advancement of black rock musicians. In 1983, Cassandra and her husband divorced.

In 1985, Wilson released her first album Point of View on the JMT label. Three years later she released Blue Skies, an album which brought her critical acclaim, and which reached number two on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart.

On “Polka Dots And Moonbeams,” Wilson exhibits an earthy sense of sentimentality that fits perfectly with the feel of the song. Wilson adds little inflections that make the listener forget the often-sappy way the song is performed. Pianist Mulgrew Miller is the perfect accompaniment for Wilson, adding subtleties to enhance her performance.

The following year, Wilson joined the group New Air on a tour throughout Europe. The avant-garde trio featured saxophonist Henry Threadgill, bassist Fred Hopkins, and drummer Pheeroan akLaff. During this time, Cassandra had the opportunity to perform with pianist John Hicks, bassist Bob Cunningham, guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, amongst others.

In 1989, Wilson was given the opportunity to open for her early idol Miles Davis at the JVC Jazz Festival in Chicago. The subsequent year, Cassandra recorded the album She Who Weeps, which featured composition and performance contributions from both her mother and father.

In 1993, Wilson signed with Blue Note Records and released Blue Light ‘til Dawn. The album was her first album that included several songs that weren’t part of standard jazz repertory including “Last Train To Clarksville” by rock band The Monkees and “Tupelo Honey” by singer Van Morrison.

On the album’s opening track “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Wilson benefits from the sparse instrumentation and creates a dark and intense atmosphere that is often moving. Wilson sings with such intimacy that it feels as if she’s experienced the suffering that the lyrics express. The performance of guitarist Brandon Ross and violinist Charlie Burnham help to communicate the anguish of the lyrics.

In 1995, she released the album New Moon Daughter, which featured songs by singer Neil Young, bandleader Hoagy Carmichael, and rock band U2, as well as several originals. The album was awarded the 1996 Grammy Award for “Best Jazz Vocal Performance.”

In 1997 she toured in trumpeter Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize winning oratorio Blood on the Fields, originally performing in its premiere on National Public Radio in the fall of 1994. 1997 also saw Cassandra making an appearance at the JVC Festival in New York where she performed at Carnegie Hall. The following year she appeared with Marsalis at Lincoln Center.

Wilson was given the opportunity to pay tribute to Davis in 1999 with the release of Traveling Miles, which grew out of a succession of concerts she performed at Lincoln Center in November 1997. The album was comprised of adaptations of Davis’ compositions as well as originals. The album also featured top talent including violinist Regina Carter, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and bassist Dave Holland.The following year, Cassandra married actor Isaach De Bankole, whom she met when he directed her in the concert film Traveling Miles: Cassandra Wilson.

In 2005, Wilson released Thunderbird. On “Poet,” Wilson plays with the funky textures of the song and gives a strong performance. Wilson displays another example of the affection she has for the lyrics, resulting in a more personal experience for the listener. Wilson allows ample time for her accompaniment to shine, with a brief but enjoyable slide guitar solo.

Wilson’s most recent album is 2008’s Loverly, which features contributions from pianist Jason Moran and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. The album was awarded the 2009 Grammy Award for “Best Jazz Vocal Album.”

Wilson has been the recipient of several honors over the years. From the years 1994-1996, Down Beat Magazine named Cassandra “Female Jazz Vocalist of the Year”. In 2001, Time Magazine named Cassandra “America’s Best Singer’ and in 2003 she received an honorary doctorate from Millsaps College. On February 26, 2009, Cassandra was the recipient of the “Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts” from her hometown of Jackson, Mississippi.

Wilson currently lives with her husband and son Jeris in New York City.

Select Discography

As Cassandra Wilson

Point of View (1985)

Days Aweigh (1987)

Blue Skies (1988)

Jumpworld (1989)

She Who Weeps (1990)

After the Beginning Again (1991)

Dance to the Drums Again (1992)

Blue Light ‘til Dawn (1993)

New Moon Daughter (1995)

Traveling Miles (1999)

Belly of the Sun (2002)

Glamoured (2003)

Thunderbird (2006)

Loverly (2008)

With Steve Coleman

Motherland Pulse (1985)

On The Edge of Tomorrow (1986)

World Expansion (1986)

Sine Die (1987)

With Wynton Marsalis

Blood On The Fields (1995)

With M-Base

Dance to the Drums Again (1993)

Contributor: Eric Wendell