Born in Jackson on 4 December 1955, singer Cassandra Wilson has developed a style and repertoire that defy conventional descriptions. Sometimes described as a jazz singer because of her lilting, improvised performance style (and because she has recorded on Blue Note, a jazz label), Wilson sings a wide range of songs in her own unique fashion.
Wilson received training as a classical pianist, attended public schools in Jackson, and received her mass communications degree from Jackson State University. She lived briefly in New Orleans before moving to New York to pursue her singing career.
Wilson played in a variety of jazz bands in the mid-1980s and made her first album under her own name in 1986. Since then, she has released an impressive variety of recordings, with nearly twenty albums as of 2015. DownBeat magazine named her Most Popular Female Jazz Singer several times in the 1990s, and she won Grammy Awards in 1996 for New Moon Daughter and in 2009 for Loverly. On 7 January 2010 she received a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail. And both Millsaps College and the New School have awarded Wilson honorary doctorates. Her 1988 release, Blue Skies, consists entirely of versions of jazz standards, and in 1999 she released a salute to Miles Davis, Traveling Miles. She has recorded such other jazz standards as “Strange Fruit” and “You Don’t Know What Love Is.”
Perhaps what characterizes Wilson above all are her unique approach to singing and her willingness to sing a dramatic variety of songs. She has consistently recorded songs created or made famous by Mississippi-born blues performers, among them “Come on in My Kitchen” and “Hellhound on My Trail” by Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon’s “I Want to Be Loved,” the blues standard “Easy Rider,” and “You Gotta Move.” One recording included guitar playing by contemporary Mississippi musician Keb’ Mo. But Wilson is not constrained by any tradition. She has also recorded “Red River Valley” as well as songs by Van Morrison, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Hank Williams. Recent recordings such as Belly of the Sun (2002) and Thunderbird (2006) combined numerous influences, including contemporary popular music, while on other releases such as Loverly (2008) and a tribute to Billie Holiday, Coming Forth by Day (2015) Wilson emphasized songs clearly rooted in older traditions. According to Wilson, “Down South, musicians have to be able to play in many different circumstances and in many contexts. They have to play jazz, they have to integrate the blues, and they have to know country. And the lines are kinda blurry sometimes, ’cause that’s what everybody wants to hear.” Wilson continues to blur lines as one of Mississippi’s least predictable musicians.
- John Ephland, DownBeat (January 1995)
- Geoffrey Himes, Jazz Times (May 2002)
- John Leland, New York Times (7 March 2002)
- Cassandra Wilson website, www.cassandrawilson.com