NEA Jazz Masters: Tribute to Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson has used her distinctive voice and fascinating arrangements of standards, in not just jazz, but blues, country, and folk as well, to create a body of work that has expanded the definition of jazz. She has recorded more than 20 releases as a leader and has been featured on recordings by musicians such as Terence Blanchard, Bill Frisell, Charlie Haden, Angelique Kidjo, and Luther Vandross, and earned critical acclaim for her performance on Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning Blood on the Fields album.

Wilson grew up as Cassandra Fowlkes in Jackson, Mississippi, whose rich musical history influenced her career. Music was very much a part of Wilson’s family; her father was a jazz guitarist and bassist and her mother, a teacher, loved Motown. She began playing piano at six, then picked up the guitar at age 12 and began writing songs. Wilson studied theater arts and philosophy at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, before leaving to perform with the regional blues/jazz band Bluejohn. In 1979, Wilson returned to Jackson and completed her studies at Jackson State University, earning a degree in mass communications. While performing with local bands such as the all-women band Past Present and Future, she also was studying jazz with drummer Alvin Fielder, an early influence on her singing.

In 1981, she married Anthony Wilson, a New Orleans-based radio personality, and found work at the local television station WDSU. While in New Orleans, she sought out local jazz legends such as Ellis Marsalis, Jr. and Earl Turbinton as mentors. A year later, she relocated to New York City, where she met saxophonist Steve Coleman—with whom she made her first recordings—and became one of the founding members of the M-Base Collective. At the same time, she toured with Henry Threadgill’s avant-garde trio New Air and appeared on the recording Air Show No. 1.

Wilson made her first solo recording in 1986 on the JMT label, then in 1993 signed with the storied Blue Note Records. Her releases on the label from 1993 to 2010 revealed the artistic depth of her musical adventurousness in interpreting and reinventing songs and musical styles from blues to Afro-Cuban to country. The albums were well-received by critics and the public, expanding the audience for jazz by taking on songs outside of the jazz canon. She also paid homage to some of her heroes in jazz, such as Miles Davis and Billie Holiday.

The musicians she gathered for her recordings are among the top names in jazz, such as Terri Lyne Carrington, Olu Dara, Dave Holland, Pat Metheny, Jason Moran, Lonnie Plaxico, Marvin Sewell, Fabrizio Sotti, and Jacky Terrasson. She also featured musicians outside the realm of jazz, such as guitarists Keb’ Mo’, Marc Ribot, and Chris Whitley.

Among the honors Wilson received are two Grammy Awards, Downbeat magazine Female Jazz Vocalist of the Year awards (1995-96), the Miles Davis Prize by the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal (1999), the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Artistic Excellence in Music (2009), a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail (2010), and honorary doctorates from Millsaps College (Mississippi), the New School (New York), and Berklee College of Music (Massachusetts).

Selected Discography

Point of View, JMT, 1985
New Moon Daughter, Blue Note, 1995
Traveling Miles, Blue Note, 1998
Loverly, Blue Note, 2007
Coming Forth by Day, Legacy Recordings/Sony Music, 2014