Blurring The Lines

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

Jazz queen Cassandra Wilson comes to the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz this Thursday to play a show that is sure to be a sellout.  Grammy award winner Wilson is held in the highest regard in jazz circles, and is renowned not only for her singing but her eclectic choice of material, which ranges from Miles Davis and Robert Johnson to Sting and the Monkees.

Cassandra Wilson was born in Jackson, Mississippi, the youngest of three children. Her parents both loved music, indeed her father was a jazz bassist, and this passion was instilled in her from an early age.  At age 5, she made her singing debut at her brother’s kindergarten graduation and at 9 she began to take piano and guitar lessons. 

Wilson’s school years were a socially significant time, as when she was in ninth grade, the schools in Mississippi were desegregated.  In the eleventh grade, she proved that she was going to be a groundbreaker by being cast as Dorothy in a school production of “The Wizard of Oz.”  In her last years of high school, she also raised eyebrows by forming a band with two white classmates.  “Music was the way we (blacks and whites) came together,” she recalled.  “We traded albums at school.  I remember hearing James Taylor and then really getting into Joni Mitchell.  I turned some of my friends on to jazz they hadn’t heard before.”

Wilson began singing professionally in 1975, aged 20.  She worked in cover bands, singing mainly blues, R&B and Top 20 hits.  She began singing with the Black Arts Music Society in Jackson and studying with jazz drummer Alvin Fielder. It was at this time she began to emerge as a jazz vocalist, and in 1981, after graduating from Jackson State University, she moved to New Orleans to study with saxophonist Earl Turbinton. 

The following year, Wilson relocated to New York and began working with David Holland and Abbey Lincoln.  Three years later, she appeared as a guest vocalist on an album by Steve Coleman, and was subsequently asked by the JMT record label to record her own album.  The result was her debut, “Point of View.”  Wilson played with Coleman’s New Air group, and recorded widely with other artists.    

Wilson’s real breakthrough in the American mainstream came in 1988, when she released “Blue Skies,” an album of jazz standards.  It was named jazz album of the year by Billboard magazine.  Determined not to be categorized, Wilson followed “Blue Skies” with “Jumpworld” in 1990, which had funk and rap rubbing shoulders with jazz and blues. 

The stylistic diversity has continued throughout Wilson’s recorded work.  Her latest album “Glamoured” contains songs by Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan among others, as well as her own compositions.  She explains her eclecticism as a byproduct of working as a musician in the south: “They have to play jazz, they have to integrate the blues, rhythm and blues, and they have to know a little country.  And the lines are blurred sometimes, because that’s what everybody wants to hear.”

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, February 26, 2004

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