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*Cassandra Wilson was born on this date in 1955. She is a Black singer and songwriter.
From Jackson, Mississippi, Wilson is the third and youngest child of Herman Fowlkes, Jr., a guitarist, bassist, and music teacher, and Mary McDaniel, an elementary school teacher with a Ph.D. in education. Wilson’s earliest formal musical education consisted of classical lessons; she studied piano from six to thirteen and played clarinet in middle school concerts and marching bands.
She was tired of this training; she asked her father to teach her the guitar. Instead, he gave her a lesson in self-reliance, suggesting she study Mel Bay method books. Wilson explored guitar, developing what she has described as an “intuitive” approach. During this time, she began writing her songs. She also appeared in musical theater productions, including The Wizard of Oz as Dorothy.
Wilson attended Millsaps College and Jackson State University. She graduated with a degree in mass communications. Outside the classroom, she worked with R&B, funk, and pop cover bands, singing in local coffeehouses during this time. The Black Arts Music Society, founded by John Reese and Alvin Fielder, gave her her first opportunity to perform bebop.
In 1981, she moved to New Orleans as assistant public affairs director for the local television station, WDSU. Musically, working with mentors who included elder statesmen Earl Turbinton, Alvin Batiste, and Ellis Marsalis Jr., Wilson found encouragement to seriously pursue jazz performance and moved to New York City the following year. 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, she met alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who encouraged her to look beyond the standard jazz repertoire to develop 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. Wilson was married to Anthony Wilson from 1981 to 1983.
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 toured with the avant-garde trio New Air and recorded Air Show No. 1 (1987). 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. 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.”
Her 1996 New Moon Daughter album won Best Jazz Vocal Performance Grammy. In 1997, she recorded and toured as a featured vocalist with Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize-winning composition, Blood on the Fields. 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. She has a son, Jeris, who was born in the late 1980s. Her song "Out Loud (Jeris' Blues)" is from the album She Who Weeps.
For many years she and her son lived in New York City's Sugar Hill, in an apartment that once belonged to Count Basie, Lena Horne, and the boxer Joe Louis. In 2000, Wilson married actor Isaach de Bankolé; she and her mother are members of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. In 2020, she received an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Berklee College of Music.
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