Cassandra Wilson has established herself as one of the great jazz music interpreters of the past decade and a half, and has also made an impression as a songwriter and producer.
Wilson is the third and youngest child of Herman Fowlkes, Jr., a guitarist, bassist and music teacher; and Mary McDaniel, an elementary school teacher who eventually earned her Ph.D. in education. Between her mother's love for Motown and her father's dedication to jazz, Wilson's parents sparked her early interest in music.
Like many jazz musicians Wilson's formal musical education consisted of classical lessons; she studied piano from the age of six to thirteen and played clarinet in the middle school concert and marching bands. When she tired of this training, she asked her father to teach her the guitar. Instead, he gave her a lesson in self-reliance-some Mel Bay method books. She explored the instrument on her own, developing what she has described as an "intuitive" approach. During this time she began writing her own songs, adopting a folk style. She sang and played guitar in a folk trio with fellow students David Clark and Jack Ritter during high school. She also appeared in the musical theater productions, including The Wizard of Oz as Dorothy , crossing racial lines in a recently desegregated school system.
For college, Wilson attended Millsaps College and Jackson State University. She graduated with a degree in mass communications. Outside of the classroom, the busy student spent her nights working with R&B, funk, and pop cover bands, also singing in local coffeehouses. The Black Arts Music Society, founded by John Reese and Alvin Fielder, provided her with her first opportunities to perform bebop.
In 1981, she moved to New Orleans for a position as assistant public affairs director for the local television station, WDSU. She did not stay long. Working with mentors who included elder statesmen Earl Turbinton, Alvin Batiste, and Ellis Marsalis, Wilson found encouragement to seriously pursue jazz performance and moved to the New York City area the following year.
There her focus turned towards improvisation. Heavily influenced by singers Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter, she fine-tuned her vocal phrasing and scat while studying ear training with trombonist Grachan Moncur, III. Frequenting jam sessions under the tutelage of pianist Sadik Hakim, a Charlie Parker alumnus, she met alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who encouraged her to look beyond the standard jazz repertoire in favor of developing original material. She would become the vocalist and one of the founding members of the M-Base collective in which Coleman was the leading figure, a stylistic outgrowth of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and Black Artists Group (BAG) that re-imagined the grooves of funk and soul within the context of traditional and avant-garde jazz.
Although the voice - typically treated as the focal point of any arrangement in which it is included - was not an obvious choice for M-base's complex textures or dissonant free melodies, Wilson wove herself into the fabric of these settings with wordless improv and lyrics. She can be heard on Coleman's Motherland Pulse (1985); On the Edge of Tomorrow (1986); World Expansion (1986); and Sine Die (1987).
At the same time, Wilson recorded and toured with alto saxophonist Henry Threadgill in the avant-garde trio New Air. A decade her senior and an AACM member, Threadgill has been lauded as a composer for his ability to transcend stylistic boundaries, a trait he and Wilson share.
Wilson signed to the Munich-based, independent label JMT. She released her first recording as a leader Point of View in 1986. Like the majority of her JMT albums that followed, originals by Wilson in keeping with M-base dominated these sessions; she would also record material by and co-written with Coleman, Jean-Paul Bourelly, and James Weidman as well as a few standards. Her throaty contralto gradually emerges over the course of these recordings, making its way to the foreground. She developed a remarkable ability to stretch and bend pitches, elongate syllables, manipulate tone and timbre from dusky to hollow.
While these recordings established her as a serious musician , Wilson received her first broad critical acclaim for the album of standards recorded in the middle of this period, Blue Skies (1988). Her signing with Blue Note records in 1993 marked a crucial turning point in her career and major breakthrough to audiences beyond jazz with albums selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies.
Beginning with Blue Light 'Til Dawn (1993) her repertoire moved towards a broad synthesis of blues, pop, jazz, world music, and country. Although she continued to perform originals and standards, she adopted songs as diverse as Robert Johnson's "Come On in My Kitchen", Joni Mitchell's "Black Crow", The Monkees' "Last Train to Clarksville", and Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry".
Not only did Wilson effectively reconnect vocal jazz with its blues roots, she was arguably the first to convincingly fashion post-British Invasion pop into jazz, trailblazing a path that many have since followed. Furthermore, producer Craig Street drew from pop production techniques to create a rich ambient environment around her voice, magnifying it and giving sonic depth to Brandon Ross' sparse but incredibly vivid arrangements, which used steel guitar, violin, accordion, and percussion.
Wilson's 1996 album New Moon Daughter won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. In 1997, she recorded and toured as a featured vocalist with Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize winning composition, Blood on the Fields.
The late Miles Davis was one of Wilson's greatest influences. In 1989 Wilson performed as the opening act for Davis at the JVC Jazz Festival in Chicago. In 1999 she produced Traveling Miles as a tribute to Davis. The album developed from a series of jazz concerts that she performed at Lincoln Center in November of 1997 in Davis' honor and includes three selections based on Davis' own compositions, in which Wilson adapted the original themes.