The Innovative Cassandra Wilson Turns 65

Cassandra Wilson Photo: Mark Seliger/NPR.

Friday on All Night Jazz, we will be featuring music by the versatile singer-songwriter, Cassandra Wilson, who is celebrating her 65th birthday today. WUSF’s Carson Rodriguez Bugarin and Steve Splane have more:

Born December 4, 1955 in Jackson Mississippi, Cassandra Wilson’s childhood was surrounded by music. Wilson’s mother, an elementary school teacher, loved Motown and her father, a guitarist, bassist, and music teacher, loved jazz.

Inspired by her parent’s love for music, Wilson started learning to play the piano at age 6 and continued to receive training in classical music well into her teens.

At the age of 12, at the urging of her father, Wilson started to take guitar lessons, using the Mel Bay method books.

Wilson soon began to write her own songs and developed a folksy style.

After graduating from Millsaps College and Jackson State University with an undergraduate degree in Mass Communications, Wilson moved to New Orleans to take a job working in public affairs at a local television station.

But the pull of music drove her to pursue her passion, prompting her to move to New York City in 1982, only a year after arriving in New Orleans.

In 1985, after meeting saxophonist, Steve Coleman, Wilson became a founding member of music-centered art movement called M-Base. On his website, Coleman says it is a philosophy centered around the idea of “expressing our experiences through music that uses improvisation and structure as two of its main ingredients.”

In 1992, Wilson signed with Blue Note Records and switched to a more acoustic, blues-oriented style with the album., “Blue Light Til Dawn.”

Wilson quickly rose to became a prominent jazz artist, especially after working on Wynton Marsalis’ piece, “Blood on the Fields,” which was the first jazz composition to earn a Pulitzer Prize for Music.

She won her first Grammy award in 1996 (Best Jazz Vocal Performance) for the album “New Moon Daughter.”

In 1999, Wilson directed and performed a Miles Davis’ tribute album, “Traveling Miles.”

Wilson has always been a fan of Davis and was the opening act for a Davis appearance at the 1989 JVC Jazz Festival in Chicago.

In a 2004 interview with NPR, Wilson said growing up,  her father played Davis music all the time. She particularly loved the genre-bending album “Sketches of Spain.”

“When I was getting into…and finding my own voice, I would have to remind myself, ‘What would Miles do…how would he say this melody?’” Wilson said.

“ …I would have to quiet myself down… and start think more about making things longer and draping melodies across the bar line. Playing with the time.”

That time-centered mindset is reflected in her love of improvising, not just by concentrating on a piano player, as many singers do, but by focusing on the drummer.  She sometimes performs without a using piano at all and frequently adds a percussionist.

“A great groove for me is drums and percussion fighting it out,” she told NPR.

Wilson won her second Grammy in 2008 (Best Jazz Vocal Album) for “Loverly.” To date she has a total of four Grammy nominations.

In 2015, Wilson signed with Legacy Records and released, “Coming Forth By Day” a tribute to Billie Holiday.

Her most recent album, “Jupiter is Rising,” was released in August, 2019.

Wilson is still active both in the music world and on social media and prides herself on continuing to experiment with different styles of jazz.

She has been awarded honorary doctorates by Millsaps College (2003), The New School (2015) and this spring she was awarded her third doctorate, this time from Berklee College of Music.

During her virtual acceptance speech, she told the graduating class that music is a force of nature.

“This is a powerful energy that we summon when we create music and it’s something we have to cherish,” she told the Berklee grads.

She urged them to embrace the challenges a music career will present them.

“You make one step towards the music, and it will make three steps towards you.”


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