Music in her soul: Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson  Photo:
Cassandra Wilson

In June jazz musician, vocalist, songwriter, arranger and producer Cassandra Wilson is returning to Australia to perform at The Melbourne International Jazz Festival, The Adelaide Cabaret Festival and a concert at The Sydney Opera House.  Aussie Theatre’s Jan Chandler recently had the pleasure of chatting with Wilson about her life and work.

Watch Cassandra Wilson performing Caravan with her band at the 32nd Festival de Jazz de Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain in July 2008 (YouTube) and you will see that Wilson feels every beat of the music and the story it has to tell. She dances to the rhythms and her voice, a deep, warm, melodic contralto, moves you to the depths of your being. .Music is her life and she gives it her everything.

Wilson was in her early twenties when she decided to make jazz music her career, but music had entered her life long before this. She grew up in Jackson, Mississippi in the late 1950s, at the height of the civil rights movement. She remembers ‘Jim Crow’ and the restrictions placed on where black people could go, but, as she tells me, “oddly enough it’s not a bad memory … because I don’t think that I knew at the time that it was so bad”.  The assassination of civil rights activist, Medgar Evers, in Jackson on 12 June 1963, when Wilson was about six years old, first opened her eyes to the serious struggle going on to secure her right to go where she pleased, when she pleased.

With a joyous laugh she assures me that she didn’t feel that she was missing out on anything by not being able to do things with “the melanin challenged people … I prefer not to say ‘white’ any more because I don’t believe in race”. With the support and encouragement of her parents she believed she could do anything, and there was always the freedom of music.

Cassandra Wilson Photo:
Cassandra Wilson

Asked about her earliest musical memory Wilson exclaims, “Wow, it’s been there so long”. She remembers playing with her father’s guitar when she was “very, very young”. Herman Fowlkes Jnr was a jazz guitarist, bassist and music teacher who had an archtop guitar and, as she describes it, “there’s a short bit that flows over the bridge and when you pluck it, it sounds like a harp” The young Cassandra, intrigued by the sound, called it “the heavenly strings”.

In her early twenties Wilson returned to Jackson, having dropped out of college, and started performing with her father’s group. It was then that she decided to get serious about learning the language of jazz and devoted her time to understanding it.  In the early 1980s she moved to New York City and her career began to take off. She met saxophonist Steve Coleman and became one of the founding members of the M-Base Collective which re-imagined the grooves of funk and soul within the context of traditional and avant-garde jazz.

Asked what is special about jazz, Wilson replies: “Oh, so many things.”

It is sort of a delightful language of the spirit world I think, because it demands your full attention and it demands your imagination and you have to have both sides of your brain working at once. This is difficult, it’s not an easy feat. To have command of the language you have to have some formal understanding of chords and melody and harmony and rhythm, the most important thing. At the same time you have to be able to develop ideas and have conversations with other musicians in the moment.

Wilson is noted for having incorporated blues, country and folk music into her work. Her influences have been many and varied, from Miles Davis (“as an instumentalist he was an icon“), Betty Carter and Billie Holiday, to Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison, not to mention Abbey Lincoln who had “a tremendous influence on my work”. In 1994 Wilson performed in the premiere of Wynton Marsalis’s oratorio Blood on the Fields at the Lincoln Centre in New York. In 1997 the work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, the first ever jazz work to be so honoured.

Given the range of influences on her work, I was curious to know how Wilson might describe her musical self. Her answer: “intrepid” and “fearless …attuned to the energies that we don’t see, the hidden energies, the hidden experience …”. As with any artist she would like to be remembered for her body of work, but also for “stepping out and doing something that was unusual at the time, creating an new approach to music.”

What next? Laughter, “I don’t know. It’s still day to day, you decide day to day what you’re going to do.”

With a host of awards to her name over her career, amongst them two Grammys and the 2012 Echo Award for Jazz, we can only wait and see what the next step in Wilson’s exploration of jazz music might be.

However we do have the opportunity of seeing today’s Cassandra Wilson.  She will be performing with her band (Gregoire Maret harmonica, Brandon Ross guitars, Charlie Burnham violin, Lonnie Plaxico bass and Mino Cinelu percussion) at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall on 9 June.  One thing’s for sure, it will be a night to remember – “when we travel that far we want to give you everthing that we got [laughter]. We’ll be fully loaded and ready to take you on a journey. “

There were so many questions I wasn’t able to ask, and answers I wasn’t able to squeeze into this piece. All I can say is, if you love the experience of live music, music that resonates throughout your body and makes you come alive, then don’t miss your chance to see this wonderful performer live. You won’t be disappointed.


Sunday 9 June, 8pm
Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall


Adelaide Cabaret Festival concert
12 June, 9pm
13 June, 9pm
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival centre

Sydney Opera House concert
15 June, 9pm

Jan Chandler

Jan has been working freelance in the arts industry for some 15+ years in a variety of roles including: arts management; journalism (print, radio and online); publicity; and media relations. Passionate about the arts in all their variety, Jan has worked in film (production assistant; reviewer); dance (publicity; producer and presenter of 'Dance Dialogues - 3CR) and Board Member of Ausdance (Victoria)); performing arts (company manager, performer, reviewer, online editor). Jan had the honour of being the General Manager of Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre for some 18 months.

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