3:33pm

Mon September 20, 2004
Columns

Cassandra Wilson on JazzSet

Cassandra Wilson stars on JazzSet at 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, September 26th.

Cassandra Wilson is often described as not only an accomplished jazz vocalist and composer but also as a lyricist, producer, musical director, guitarist and pianist (Myers 1E). Born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1955, Cassandra Wilson has been singing and performing since she sang at her brother?s kindergarten graduation at the age of five. The youngest of three children, Wilson began playing the piano and guitar at the age of nine. Cassandra attributes her interest in music to her parents. Her mother, who is a retired elementary school teacher, and father, who is a bass guitarist, often sang to her as a small child. Her father introduced her to jazz. Jazz was not a very popular form of music during the 1960?s, but Cassandra loved it so much that she wanted to share it with others.

When Cassandra was in the ninth grade, the schools were desegregated in Mississippi. Her ninth and tenth grade years were difficult as Cassandra recalls but were better for the remainder of her high school years. Despite the racial tensions that were present at her new school setting, she eventually adjusted to her environment. In the eleventh grade she got the leading role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. ? For all the negative aspects, experiencing things that were different from what I knew was also exciting,? says Cassandra in an interview for The Oxford American in it?s 1997 music issue. Obtaining the star role in the high school musical was not the first time Cassandra stepped over the color lines and made a mark for herself and others. During her last years in high school, Wilson formed a musical group with two young men who were both white.

After obtaining a degree from Jackson State University in mass communication, Wilson moved from Mississippi to New Orleans and worked as an assistant in Public Affairs at a local television station. In 1982, Wilson moved to New York. She began recording widely in the 80?s initially with Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill?s New Air group. She became the main vocalist with their M/Base collection. During her first decade in New York, she released seven records on the JMT/Verve label while she also sang on other innovative projects for other singers. By 1993 she had sung on ten albums produced by JMT records with a wide variety of New York musicians, including Mulgrew Miller and Greg Osby.

Cassandra?s music has often been compared to artists like Betty Carter, Nina Simone, and Shirley Horn, whom she also considers to be some of her musical influences. Billy Holiday and Sarah Vaugh also influenced her. Cassandra has come a long way from her high school music group and late night singing at local clubs. Cassandra now concentrates more on the pure innovative production of her own music albums. If Cassandra Wilson?s intentions are to open people?s eyes to the broadness of her music through the messages in her songs, then she is well on her way to achieving her goal. Wilson?s emotional range and tone variations impress many critics, audiences, and fellow musicians. Many critics write that she is one of the most promising musicians on the horizon. She has received many awards due to her sensual and soulful voice. In her own hometown of Jackson, Mississippi, she was selected to receive the 1997 Governor?s Award for excellence in the Arts. Unfortunately, she was unable to accept this award due to her tour with Wynton Marsalis. Her tour, entitled Blood on the Fields, was Grammy nominated for best vocal performance. Wilson won the ?best jazz vocalist? Grammy award for her album New Moon Daughter. Her album New Moon Daughter has been described as one of her best albums, with vocals that carry sultry and contralto undertones. Cassandra?s album Blue Light Til?Dawn was so exemplary that it won her the Downbeat?s ?Singer of the Year? title for 1994 and 1995. In 1996, this album also won her the same honor in Down Beat?s Critic poll. She also has appeared on screen in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Junio.

Cassandra Wilson is not overly concerned with what other people think of her or how she performs. She was named ?most important and daring jazz vocalist? by Time magazine in 1996. Listeners can only wonder if Cassandra?s unique sense of singing is what attributes to her rising success. ?I?m interested in crossing boundaries,? explains Wilson, ?to be able to operate in several worlds at once is the result of being open minded, whether in music or some other part of the experience. I still believe that things have to fall apart before something new can emerge. That?s true for everything, including music?.

Wilson expresses herself through her music. She has become well loved and admired because of her ability not only to sell her music, but herself in the process. Wilson sings with the intent of getting a message to her listeners. She sings with her heart and so much of her soul that it seems as though she is literally singing to you. There is absolutely no doubt to that at the rate Cassandra is going, her contralto, sensual voice and down-to-earth personality will draw a lot of fans for a long time to come.

Since winning the Grammy award for her vocal stylings on New Moon Daughter in 1997, the call of the Delta has been beckoning her. She is currently working on a CD with 81-year-old Boogaloo Ames and his partner Eden Brent tentatively to be called Belly of the Sun. The CD will also include Jackson musicians Jesse Robinson on guitar, Nellie McGinnis on bass, and Rhonda Richmond on guitar.