The Kennedy Center

Cassandra Wilson


Grammy Award-winning vocalist Cassandra Wilson, considered by many music critics to be the finest jazz vocalist of her generation, has eclectic musical interests ranging from jazz to popular music, R&B to folk, blues to rock. She was born in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1955 and grew up there. Ms. Wilson's father, guitarist and bassist Herman B. Fowlkes, a jazz musician who played with Sonny Boy Williamson and Ray Charles, kept an extensive music library in the house. She started playing music at age six, and began writing her own songs on the guitar at 12. During her college years at Jackson State University in Mississippi (from which she graduated with a degree in mass communications), Ms. Wilson performed with Bluejohn, a local blues band. She emerged as a jazz singer while studying with drummer Alvin Fielder and singing with the Black Arts Music Society. In 1981, she moved from her hometown to New Orleans and studied with saxophonist Earl Turbinton. A year later, Ms. Wilson left for New York at the suggestion of trumpeter Woody Shaw and began working with David Holland and Abbey Lincoln. In 1985, she was a guest artist on Steve Coleman's album Motherland Pulse and was asked by the JMT label to record her own albums. Her debut was Point of View, which featured Coleman and guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly. She sang with New Air, Henry Threadgill's trio, and he returned the compliment by helping with arrangements on her second, more powerful album, Days Aweigh, featuring a transfixing mix of smoky, knowing vocals and expansive, lush music that traveled between psychedelia and swing. Adept at scat and other forms of improvisational singing, she also made a more conservative record of standards, Blue Skies (1988), which was named jazz album of the year by Billboard magazine. The follow-up, the innovative sci-fi epic Jumpworld (1990), included raps and funk as well as jazz and blues and showed that Cassandra Wilson was not to be easily categorized. This stylistic diversity continued with She Who Weeps (1991). In the meantime, Wilson was also recording lead vocals on Steve Coleman's albums and making guest appearances with such leaders as Greg Osby and Robin Eubanks, musicians also associated with Coleman's M-Base collective, a group that advocated a blending of jazz, funk, hip hop, and various types of world music. She made her highly acclaimed album Blue Light 'Til Dawn (1993), and at Lincoln Center, Cassandra Wilson was featured in the role of Leona in Wynton Marsalis' epic work Blood on the Fields, which premiered there in April 1994. Ms. Wilson contributed a track to a tribute album of Van Morrison's music entitled No Prima Donna (at Mr. Morrison's request), and another track on arranger Bob Belden's tribute to Prince entitled When Doves Cry. She appeared on screen in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Junior. More Blue Note Records releases include New Moon Daughter (1998, a number one album in the U.S. jazz charts) that featured songs by the Monkees, U2, Hank Williams, Son House, and Neil Young; and Traveling Miles (1999), her tribute to the great trumpeter and bandleader that included interpretations of Miles Davis works as well as Ms. Wilson's own new material. A month after Time Magazine named her "America's Best Singer" (2001), Cassandra Wilson boarded a train in New York and headed to Mississippi, returning to her home state to record there for the first time in her 20-year career. The resulting Belly of the Sun (2002) includes songs from Bob Dylan, Fred McDowell, Glen Campbell, James Taylor, and her own writing inspired by the elegance and the heat of the Deep South. The album also features rising star India.Arie as well as octogenarian Mississippi pianist Boogaloo Ames. Glamoured (2003) also features an eclectic mix of work by such artists as Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Sting, Abbey Lincoln, and Willie Nelson. In 2006, Blue Note released Thunderbird. Her critically acclaimed album of standards, 2008's Loverly, was a Grammy winner for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Wilson returned to New Orleans in 2009. That same year, she released Closer to You: The Pop Side which celebrates the finest pop moments from her seven-album, decade-plus legacy with Blue Note. 2010's Silver Pony, a fascinating hybrid of live and studio takes, is perhaps Wilson's most ambitious recording project to date. The album, which includes special guests Ravi Coltrane and John Legend, marks the first live tracks released by Wilson since 1991, and her first for Blue Note. Cassandra Wilson appeared in the Eisenhower Theater with her Quintet on February 6, 2004.

“Wilson’s Mississippi-bred contralto is as rich, dark and powerful as the river itself…” (People Magazine)

May 2011
Photo of Cassandra Wilson