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More Than Just a Jazz Singer

by Jason MacNeil

Every time that Norah Jones steps on stage, has a hit album or receives a Grammy Award, you should think of recent artists who didn’t receive as much well-deserved acclaim but helped pave the way for such successes. One of these artists is Cassandra Wilson, a singer whose jazz-meets-pop style and smooth, sultry delivery have been a mainstay for 20 years. Wilson, who will perform at the Naples’ Philharmonic Center on April 3, has been described by Time magazine as ‘America’s Best Singer’ and it would be hard to argue with such a statement. She posseses a cool calm confidence that is classic and yet timeless. Perhaps the oddest aspect about her career though is that she initially opted for a career in broadcasting.

“I had just gotten my degree in mass communication from Jackson State University and was working as the assistant public affairs director of a local television station in New Orleans,” she said in a 1996 interview with a Portland newspaper. “At that point, I just assumed that television would be the thing that I would do as a career. But still, the music was the most important thing for me.”

Some might say music came to the 49-year-old Wilson through genetics. Born in Jackson, Mississippi and the daughter of guitarist/bassist Herman Fowlkes, Wilson was tickling the ivories at the age of nine and was composing her own songs a few years later.

“I think I knew when I was a little girl that it was what I loved,” Wilson said in a 2004 radio interview. “I used to love to make up melodies and we’d have contests in the neighborhood to see who could make up the prettiest song. So, I knew then it was something that I really had a passion for, which I really loved.”

From there, Wilson spent her pre-college days performing in her home state and Arkansas. With time though, Wilson’s initial days inspired by folk singers like Joni Mitchell opened up to include a wealth of jazz singers such as Billie Holiday and legends like Ella Fitzgerald. After the brief college experience, Wilson ventured to the Big Apple in 1982 to work with jazz musicians Dave Holland and Abbey Lincoln. After brief stints working in funk bands like M-Base Collective and New Air, Wilson went about recording her first album.

The album, 1985’s Songbook, would mark her first statement in an ever-changing series of albums, styles and eclectic covers, including Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face The Music and Dance.” The recognition came slowly, but with each album and tour Wilson saw crowds grow, her voice slowly age and deepen, and sales improve. It was also around this time that Wilson was influenced by Betty Carter.

“I really learned a lot from watching her deal with her musicians and watching her orchestrate the performances as they went along,” she said in the same 2004 radio interview. “Betty was really known for her improvisational skills. I learned a lot about the business and how she really took control of her own destiny.”

After Polygram issued two albums in the early 1990s, including a live record, Wilson finally hit paydirt in 1993, signing to Blue Note and releasing the fabulous Blue Light Til Dawn. The album, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, earned her praise and accolades among jazz and blues circles as well as mainstream critical acclaim. The album was a blueprint of how she would consistently challenge not only herself but her listeners, covering the likes of Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison alongside Robert Johnson, while offering her own original material.

The momentum continued on 1995’s New Moon Daughter, which had covers of songs by U2, Son House and Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.”

“Of course, the first thing I listened to as a kid was jazz, so it made sense after the folk music to come back to jazz,” she said in a 1996 interview. “And now it makes just as much sense for me to be singing tunes by Joni Mitchell, Robert Johnson, Hank Williams and the Monkees.”

After touring with Wynton Marsalis’ production of Blood On The Fields in 1997, Wilson returned to the studio. In 1999, she released Traveling Miles. The album, a tribute to the late Miles Davis, didn’t seem to match the success of previous efforts. But there are some definite highlights, be they a tender, heartfelt cover of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors” or a winding, infectious yet laidback country-meets-jazz effort entitled “Right Here, Right Now.”

Although comparisons between Norah Jones and Wilson might be a stretch to some, one only needs to look at some of the people Wilson has worked with. For example, Kevin Breit appeared on her 1996 album, a musician who later performed on Jones’ smash debut as well as becoming part of her touring band. And while Jones has managed to blur the lines between jazz, country and pop, Down Beat editor John Ephiand said something similar about Wilson ten years ago.

“Not since Billie Holiday has a jazz singer criss-crossed the boundaries between jazz and pop with such reverence and authenticity,” he wrote in a 1995 issue of the magazine.

In 2003, Wilson returned with her fourteenth studio album, Glamoured, and took more of a country slant with covers of songs by Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, but also covered Muddy Waters and Sting.

“I’m always looking for ways to develop as an artist, especially as a jazz artist, to find different ways of testing my voice,” she said in a 2004 radio interview. “New material always pushes you. It’s one thing to go to the standards you know because it’s very familiar. Once you step outside of that cannon and you try material that has never had a treatment like that, then it pushes you, it challenges you.” •

from the March/April 2005 issue

"The first thing I listened to
as a kid was jazz,
so it made sense
after the folk music
to come back to jazz.
And now it makes
just as much sense for me
to be singing tunes by
Joni Mitchell, Robert Johnson,
Hank Williams and
the Monkees.."