10 Things You Didn’t Know About Cassandra Wilson

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Cassandra Wilson

Music seems to be more powerful than any other form of media. It transcends language, race, and religion. The same work will touch the soul of the child as well as the grandparent in varying ways and with differing intensity. One orchestral work can be the theme for a war in one film, and a love scene in another. It is versatile, far-reaching, and boundless. It isn’t very often that one of our lists is referencing a musician, but when that is the case, it seems to be a very special list indeed.

And that is the case with this list. This list will assist us and our readers in getting to know jazz vocalist and songwriter Cassandra Wilson. Wilson nearly seems to embody all that was described above. Not only is she a celebrated jazz artist, she has also carved out her own niche by incorporating a different genres into the one she is famous for, including country, blues, and folk, resulting in what is nearly an entirely new sound unto itself. And it is all her own creation, though it is sure to be duplicated in the years to come. It takes a very special person to pour their soul out to that point and still live to tell about it.

But that is what she has done, so let’s take the time to celebrate this gifted woman by getting to know her better. After much reading and research, we have put together our own work…a list of ten things you didn’t know about Cassandra Wilson, ten things that we could likely call ‘The Essential Cassandra Wilson’, if the list were an album of music. But alas, it is just a list. We’re sure, however, that you will walk away from reading it better for the time sacrificed. So, read on and discover a living legend.

1. Childhood and Younger Years

Cassandra was born December 4, 1955 in Jackson, Mississippi to bassist, guitarist, and music educator Herman Fowlkes, Jr. and elementary teacher Mary McDaniel, who was known for earning a PhD in education; she was the youngest of three children the couple had. Wilson is of Welsh, Yoruba, Fon, and Irish heritage. Her father was a jazz devotee and her mother had a deep affection for Motown, and exposure to both instilled a deep love of her own for music from a very young age. Her first music lessons, in fact, were in the classical genre, and she studied piano from the age of six, as well as the clarinet in marching bands.

2. Learning Guitar and Writing Songs

Cassandra soon grew weary of the piano and clarinet, however, and approached her father for guitar lessons. Instead, he directed her to study method book by Mel Bay. As she learned, she soon found a way to play by ‘intuition’, as she puts it. She also began to write her own music during this time, which was very folk in its sound. It was through her experimentation with the guitar that she soon decided it was her favorite instrument. As for songwriting, Cassandra wrote more than twenty songs by the time she was fifteen years of age.

3. Sharing Jazz

It was jazz that Wilson loved more than any other musical style, and she wanted everyone to come to love it. But when she was young R & B was the popular genre, and many had never heard jazz music before. According to a classmate of hers from Powell Junior High, Dr. Phillip Nelson, Cassandra introduced her peers to jazz music at a school talent show. As she played and sang, he recalled, many didn’t even pay attention, but on the same token she wasn’t jeered until she left stage, either. He stated that he was always impressed by the courage it took for her to get up on stage and play a type of music no one knew. He added that she could not only sing, but had great stage presence, and because of that, many DID listen.

4. Furthering Her Education

After graduating from high school, Cassandra continued her education by attending Jackson State University. It was there that she earned a degree in mass communications, but that wasn’t all. By the age of nineteen she began performing for others onstage at that time, an education all its own. A year after graduation from college, Wilson relocated to New York City to focus on her career. It was there that she joined an organization called ‘M-Base’, which was comprised of musicians who experimented with rap, funk, hip-hop, and jazz. The group cut many albums together, and Cassandra provided the vocals for several of them before venturing out on a solo career.

5. Staying True to Herself

Wilson was initially with Polygram Records during the first part of her solo career. It wasn’t until her third album, ‘Blue Skies’, that she began to experience a bit of success. During that time, Polygram wanted her to cut songs that were more mainstream and popular, but Cassandra had plans of her own that didn’t include being a cookie-cutter musician. She eventually left Polygram and began to record with Blue Note Records. She continued to write original music while reworking hits of the past so they had her individual sound, which featured accompaniment that was unique to her style.

6. The Result

This sound of hers was not a waste of time. It ended up contributing directly to the success of her 1993 album ‘Blue Light ‘til Dawn’, which sold 400k copies. 1995’s ‘Blue Moon Daughter’ sold 650k copies and garnered the 1997 Best Jazz Vocalist Grammy for her. During that time she also toured with jazz great Wynton Marsalis as a featured vocalist during his 1997 ‘Blood on the Fields’ promotional tour. Coincidentally, Marsalis won the Pulitzer Prize for that particular musical work, making her part in the tour quite prestigious indeed.

7. Personal Life

From 1981 to 1983 Wilson was married to Anthony Wilson. Together the pair had no children, but she mothered a son, Jeris, in the late ‘80s. She and Jeris resided in Halem for some time before she remarried in 2000. Her second marriage was to director Isaach de Bankole, who happened to direct her in her concert film ‘Traveling Miles’. The pair divorced in 2003. Wilson is also a member of Jackson State University’s Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, which was also the sorority of her mother, Mary.

8. Awards and Nominations

Besides the award mentioned above, Wilson’s musical contributions have been recognized through her winning many others, including:

  • 2008 Best Jazz Vocal Album for ‘Loverly’
  • 1996 Best Jazz Vocal for ‘New Moon Daughter’
  • 1994-1996 Female Jazz Vocalist of the Year for ‘Down Beat’
  • 1997 Best Jazz Vocal Performance for ‘New Moon Daughter
  • 1999 Miles Davis Prize, Montreal International Jazz Festival
  • 2001 Named ‘America’s Best Singer’ by Time Magazine
  • 2003 Received Honorary Doctorate of the Arts from Millsaps College
  • 2009 Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for ‘Loverly’
  • 2010 Added to the Mississippi Blues Trail
  • 2010 Best Vocal Album, NPR Music, Jazz Critics’ Poll, 2010 for ‘Silver Pony’
  • 2011 Best Traditional Jazz Album, BET Soul Train Award for ‘Silver Pony’
  • 2015 Honorary Doctorate in the Fine Arts from The New School
  • 2015 Spirit of Ireland Award from the Irish Arts Center

Wilson has also received countless nominations and honorable mentions for her work and contributions to jazz music and other genres over the years.

9. Social Media Presence

For those interested in learning even more about this iconic musician, she is active on social media. You can check her out on Twitter at @reallycassandra. She also has a website, and has a Facebook page where she promotes her music and keeps fans up to date, ‘Really Cassandra Wilson’.

10. What Is She Doing Now

While the press has not released any specifics, rumor has it that Wilson has had a very busy year this year, and we can only assume they mean musically. With that being said, fans should keep their fingers crossed for new music from the 64-year-old legend, otherwise, we will say that we would be happy with anything she has to offer.

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