Born Cassandra Marie Fowlkes on December 4, 1955, inJ ackson, MS; daughter of Herman B. Fowlkes and Mary Fowlkes; married Anthony Wilson, 1981; divorced, 1983. Education: Milsaps College Addresses: Record company-Blue Note Records, 304 Park Ave. South, 3rd Floor,New York, NY 10010.
Vocalist Cassandra Wilson emerged in the 1980s as a fresh, young jazz talent whose performances solicited comparisons with the greatest jazz divas of the twentieth century. Yet Wilson ultimately defied labels as she traded the sultry and sophisticated image of past jazz and blues singers to project a much simpler image that was less flamboyant and more "down home." She was acclaimed for her crossover talents when she branched into reggae, R&B, hip-hop, and folk. "Cassandra Wilson transcends category and defies convention," said Joy Bennett Kinnon of Ebony.
Wilson was born Cassandra Marie Fowlkes, in Jackson, Mississippi, on December 4, 1955. She was raised in a close-knit, middle class family. Her father, Herman Fowlkes, was a professional musician. Initially he played bass but went on to learn the cello, violin, guitar, and saxophone. He put his musical career on hold around the time that his third child and only daughter, Cassandra, was born. After Wilson's birth, her father changed careers and worked as a postman, but music remained his fondest interest. Wilson idolized her father who played endless hours of jazz music on the family hi-fi. The sounds of Betty Carter, Sarah Vaughan, and NancyWilson filled the Fowlkes' household. Wilson's grandmother, who sang zealously in church, also influenced the young girl's attitudes. Although her grandmother passed away when Wilson was 12 years old, Wilson fondly recalled "sleeping on her couch and the curtains blowing over me at night. I remember that as being a truly magical feeling. There was a train would come by every night, and I'd hear the whistle blow. That is the sweetest memory I have," she confided to George Tate of Essence.
Wilson's fervor for jazz was further aroused as a young child when she developed a childhood "crush" on Miles Davis after hearing his album, Sketches of Spain. Shortly afterward she began to study classical piano, and she took up playing the guitar at the age of nine. During her high school years in the 1960s, Wilson nurtured a keen interest in the music styles of Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, and others popular folk singers of the era. Joni Mitchell provided particular inspiration for Wilson who soon began writing her own songs in the folk tradition while she was in high school. Because of her diverse interests and her affinity for folk music, Wilson never came to see herself as a jazz singer in the traditional sense. Public opinion differed, however, as Wilson's musical career unfolded.
Jazz Jamming after College
Wilson put great importance on education. Her mother, a career schoolteacher, encouraged her daughter to obtain a higher education and to nurture a backup career apart from music a precarious profession that offered little security. After high school Wilson attended MilsapCollege and later completed her curriculum in mass communication at Jackson State. Even as acollege student, Wilson aspired to a musical career, and she was singing professionally by 1975.
Wilson sang with the Black Arts Music Society in Jackson and studied with drummer Alvin Fielder before setting out for New Orleans in 1981. There she worked as an assistant public affairs director at a television station and decided to pursue a career in television, but she never abandoned her deep love of music and her desire to continue singing professionally. In New Orleans she continued her musical studies with saxophone player Earl Turbinton and worked with jazz patriarch Ellis Marsalis. One year later, in 1982, she moved to New York City where she joined a group of jazz players called M-Base and did a lot of "jazz jamming." In the companyof her avant-garde musical cohorts, including M-Base leader and jazz saxophone player Steve Coleman, Wilson became immersed in the culture of the local musicians. She later worked with the Black Rock Coalition (B.R.C.), and recorded her first album in 1985. She continued to perform and recorded more albums, with M-Base, B.R.C, and Coleman, but it was her solo album, Blue Skies, in 1988 that became her vehicle to recognition and stardom. Wilson's throaty voice came through in Blue Skies. Critics praised the solo effort and compared her style to that of Betty Carter.
As the 1980s came to a close Wilson signed with EMI records and expanded her repertoire to embrace a wide spectrum of music. Her jazz-inspired renditions extended from adaptations of works by Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison, to funk-based rhythms. Her reputation as a crossover artist flourished, and her universal musical styles transcended the generations. The strength of Wilson's voice, combined with her flexibility and propensity to "cross over" into non-jazz compositions, generated a following within the music niches of younger listeners.
In 1995 Wilson embarked on a six-week European tour, with a side trip to Rio. She undertook a promotional tour for her album Blue Light 'til Dawn in April of 1996. At JVC Jazz Festival in New York that year she performed on the strength of her own reputation, as an established star in her own right. Also in that year she joined in with assorted artists including Q-tip and D'Angelo in performing cameos for The Roots on illadelph halflife, on DGC Records. In late summer that year she opened for Ray Charles at Radio City Music Hall. Additionally,Wilson collaborated from time to time with Benin folk musician Angelique Kidjo, including aperformance at the Montreaux Jazz Festival, and the two contributed cameos to each other's albums.
Wilson's partiality for 1960s music came through in her album New Moon Daughter which included selections from Joni Mitchell and the Monkees that were adapted to Wilson's uniquely jazz-based improvisational style. Gene Santoro said about the release of Nation in 1996 that Wilson "may well have locked up the title 'Chanteuse of the Nineties.' She is the direct descendant of Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington." Santoro said in 1999 that Wilson and her instrumentalists forego the "microphone in front of a kick ass big band or an intimate piano trio.Instead, they create a rural, bluesy atmosphere, a studio back porch of acoustic guitars and bass, gently persistent percussion and odd daubs of color, like a floating steel guitar or a skirling fiddle. The dense arrangements sway to allow improvised solos and ideas into radically revamped material ranging from Son House's raw country blues to The Monkees' 'Last Train to Clarksville.'"
In 1997 Wilson toured in Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize winning jazz opera, Blood on the Fields, a composition that she had interpreted earlier in a National Public Radio broadcast performance in 1994. A recording of the opera, taped in 1995, was released in 1997. That year in the JVC Jazz Festival in New York City she performed at Carnegie Hall. In 1998 she played at the Lincoln Center along with Marsalis and his group.
A Tribute to Miles Davis
The late Miles Davis undoubtedly held the greatest influence on Wilson's music outside of her family. In 1989, during her early days as a recording artist, Wilson was thrilled to perform as the opening act for Davis at the JVC Jazz Festival in Chicago. Although she never had the opportunity to meet and speak with Davis, she produced an album, Traveling for Miles, released in 1999, as a tribute to him. The album developed from a series of jazz concerts that she performed at Lincoln Center in November of 1997 in Davis' honor. The album included three selections based on Davis' own compositions, in which Wilson adapted the original themes. She balanced the selections on the album with four original compositions of her own, including the title song, "Traveling Miles," to keep the album fresh and interesting. Four other songs on the album were either recorded by or associated with Davis during his lifetime. Traveling for Miles was a milestone production for Wilson. Her backup artists on the Davis album included Regina Carter on violin, Steve Coleman on alto saxophone, Stefon Harris on vibes, and Dave Holland on bass. Wilson adapted, arranged, wrote, produced, and for the first time in her life conducted the music on Traveling for Miles. She promoted the album by means of a 24-city tour that took her to a number of out-of-the-way locations in Vermont, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Tennessee.
Wilson was married briefly to Anthony Wilson from 1981 to 1983. She has one son, Jeris, born in the late 1980s. The two live in Harlem, New York, in an apartment that once belonged to jazz great Duke Ellington. Wilson and Jeris travel together frequently whenever Jeris' school schedule allows.
by Gloria Cooksey
Cassandra Wilson's Career
Signed with independent JMT label during the 1980s; signed with Blue Note Records in1993.
Cassandra Wilson's Awards
Female Jazz Vocalist of the Year, Down Beat magazine, 1994-1996; GrammyAward for best vocal jazz performance for New Moon Daughter, 1997.
- Selected discography
- Point of View , JMT, 1986.
- Days Aweigh , JMT, 1987.
- Blue Skies , JMT, 1988.
- She Who Weeps , JMT, 1991.
- After the Beginning Again , JMT, 1991.
- Blue Light 'Til Dawn , Blue Note, 1993.
- No Prima Donna: the Songs of Van Morrison , 1994.
- After the Beginning Again , JMT/Verve 1994.
- New Moon Daughter , Blue Note, 1996.
- Traveling for Miles , Blue Note, 1999.
- (with Jacky Terrasson) Rendezvous , Blue Note, 1997.
- (with New Air) Air Show No. 1 , Black Saint.
- (with Jim DeAngelis and Tony Signs) Straight from the Top , Statiras.
- with Steve Coleman
- Motherland Pulse , JMT, 1985.
- World Expansion , JMT.
- On the Edge of Tomorrow , JMT.
- with M-Base
- Anatomy of a Groove , DIW/Columbia.
- Dance to the Drums Again , DIW/Columbia, 1993.
April 4, 2006: Wilson's album, Thunderbird, was released. Source: Billboard.com, http://www.billboard.com/bbcom/reviews/album_review_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1002313481, April 13, 2006.
- Erlewine, Michael, exec. ed., All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman Books, 1998.
- Larkin, Colin, ed., The Guiness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guinness Publishing, reprinted 1994.
- Billboard, March 6, 1999, p. 11.
- Down Beat, January 1995, p. 22; July 1995, p. 13; November 1996, p. 66.
- Ebony, December 1996, p. 62.
- Essence, July 1996, p. 60.
- Nation, April 15, 1996, p. 33; April 19, 1999, p. 40.
- Newsweek, April 5, 1999, p. 72.
- People, March 11, 1996, p. 25.
- Time, March 11, 1996, p. 69.
- U.S. News & World Report, February 3, 1997, p. 91.