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The Grammy Award–winning jazz vocalist incorporates blues, country and folk into her songs
January 29, 20163:00AM ET
Randall Pinkston: Let's talk about home, Mississippi. What kind of musical influences did you have when you were growing up?
Cassandra Wilson: So many. The home was filled with instruments because my father was a musician. And he had this huge jazz collection. I listened to everything from Miles Davis to Hank Williams, because my mother loved country.
But I understand that your family did not listen to the blues.
Not a lot. There was not a lot of traditional Delta blues. I don't think there was any, actually, to be honest with you.
Why was that?
Well, my father had this idea about the blues being — how did he put it? It was a rather common form of music. He was a great proponent of jazz because it's a very complex form. And you have to be extremely —
Sophisticated, exactly. And that's true. That's the word. So he didn't have any blues except for jazz blues, you know, by Cannonball Adderley or that kind of Chicago-style jazz blues.
Your house was filled with instruments.
What did your dad play, by the way?
He started off on the violin when he was very young in Chicago. Then he picked up the trumpet and played in the Army band during World War II. And then he went from the — let me get this straight — he went from the trumpet to the guitar. That was the first instrument I remember him playing when I was young. And then he went from the guitar to the bass. And he played bass. Most people know him as a bassist in Jackson.
Which instrument did you pick up first?
First instrument I didn't pick. I actually — you can't pick up a piano.
The piano was my first instrument because I went to someone's house with my parents. And they had a piano. I just fell in love with it. My mother tells me the story that I started playing on the piano instantly. I was about 3 or 4 years old.
So at what point did you pick up the guitar?
I was about 12 years old.
Did you know at that time that you wanted to become a musician?
I think at that time, I knew. I felt as if I were a musician already.
Were you singing then, at age 12?
Yes. I started to write. Not sing so much, you know, as I can't describe it. I call them little songs.
‘I went to someone’s house with my parents. And they had a piano. I just fell in love with it. My mother tells me the story that I started playing on the piano instantly. I was about 3 or 4 years old.’
You have been described as someone who has a very, very unique voice. Is that something that you deliberately worked on or a God-given gift?
I think it's a little bit of both. I think you have to have a desire to a unique voice in order to have one. But everyone comes into the world with their unique voice. The question is, do you know how to develop it? And it takes a lot of work to do that. And there are a lot of influences that you have to allow in. But then you craft your singular voice based on all of those influences but not imitating — which I don't know if that makes sense.
Tell me about some of the influences.
Wow, there's so many influences. The very first influences were — it was actually an instrumentalist, Miles Davis. I heard "Sketches of Spain" when it came out. I was maybe about 6 years old. I believe it was released in 1960. So I was in between 5 and 6 years old. And that was the music that just really expanded my consciousness. If you can imagine listening to that kind of music and just going, "Wow, what is that?"
And later you did an album.
A tribute to Miles Davis.
I know probably every song on that album is your favorite. But do you have one that you always try to include in your performances?
"Run the Voodoo Down" … it's a very strong piece that arose from that project. That piece lingers.
I know Abbey Lincoln was a strong influence. What did you glean from her?
Well, Abbey Lincoln was one of the most creative lyricists, and she had a way of telling a story through a song that I think is very reminiscent of Billie Holiday. She could go right to the heart with her voice. I learned a lot about just taking off all of the frou-frou — I call it frou-frou — and just focusing in on what do you need to say with one or two notes that is going to penetrate.
When you talk about frou-frou with respect to music, what do you mean?
I mean showing off your agility. Showing off your chops. Singing something for the sake of showing that you can do it.
As opposed to?
Singing it from the heart. Telling a story and singing it from the heart.
And that's what you like about Billie Holiday?
Your most recent release is a tribute to her. "Coming Forth by Day." Talk to me about Billie Holiday's legacy and why you decided to focus on her.
There's a wonderful article that I read, and it's called "The Hunting of Billie Holiday." There's so much about her life that we don't know. It's all shrouded in all of this salaciousness. It's all about her addiction or the men that she was with or whatever. But they don't really focus very much on her artistry. It's as if she was some sort of primitive creature who suddenly was able to sing the way that she did. Like she had this natural instinct for the music. She was much more than that. She was a great musician. She was a incredible interpreter of stories. When Billie Holiday sings it, it's about telling your husband or your lover that no matter what happens, I'm going to be here for him.
And you don't have to explain whatever you're doing.
And you don't have to explain. When I sing it, it's more — I do a little twist on the lyric and say that "You don't have to explain. But if I catch you doin' it again, there's hell to pay." There's a little — I did a little twist there.
So you changed the lyrics?
Slightly … In the lyric that Billie sings, you get the sense that she's the victim. In the lyric that I sing, I'm not the victim.
You're laying down the law.
I'm laying down the law.
"Strange Fruit." As we know, it's a song that is connected to a horrible legacy in America of black men being lynched, hung on trees publicly for people to see. Many people would like to believe that that's a part of our past. But you say?
I say it's very much a part of our present. The racism is subtle now. It's not as obvious. Then again, there's some places where it is quite obvious. We're seeing the rash of young men that are taken out, killed in the streets. We still have to wrestle with the problems that we have here in America with racism. Really, I don't think that much has changed.
So when you're selecting the music that you're going to perform, are you doing it in part because of its social meaning as well as what it represents for you musically?
Oh, yeah. I think that enters into it. Because you can't separate what it represents musically from what it represents socially. They kind of blend together, in my mind, in the way that I absorb music. I don't separate the music from the content.
You've also been described as someone who has been a peacemaker between jazz and other genres. In this particular quote they were talking about rock. The writer called you a "genre-bending jazz diva." What do you think about that as a description of your approach to music?
I love the idea of bending things, bending reality. That's always fascinating to me. I don't know if I care for the word "diva."
I saw "Death Letter," and I'm thinking, "What is this about?" Then I was listening, and there was this really awesome polyrhythmic thing going. Then you started singing the song, about someone who had died. And this is something that I've read, that you find a connection to your dad? Now, explain that, please, how a song titled "Death Letter," about a cooling board at a morgue, connects you to your father.
Because the emotion that you tap into, you remember. The cooling board is where the body cools. I remember when my father passed away. He was at Collins Funeral Home.
On Sarah Street in Jackson.
Yes. I had to go down and look at him before they could sign off. They wanted it to be as close to how he looked in life. So someone from the family … has to come down. The memories of that I use when I sing "Death Letter" because it's a very strong memory that I have of touching his face and crying.
And connecting to our ancestors.And for you, respect for ancestors, reverence for ancestry also informs your music.
Absolutely. Every day. It does.
We mentioned earlier your tribute to Miles Davis, "Traveling Miles." You did "New Moon Daughter," "Blue Light 'til Dawn," a few of the albums. I'm wondering, is there a sequence to the albums and the songs you choose?
When you're in the middle of making an album, you don't know what you're doing. I'm speaking for myself. There's a lot of leeway that I allow in the process for the musicians and for myself, for the music to create itself.
So you're not thinking so much about a sequence. You're thinking about moods, shifting moods, shifting from one mood to another. One day you may do one song. So when you get some distance from the project, then you're able to weave together a little story sometimes. And that's how you sequence it, based on the story that you're able to get, you're able to glean from the work.
I was astounded at the number of musicians who were born in or grew up in Mississippi.Not only B.B. King and Elvis Presley and Muddy Waters, but Britney Spears. Not just Robert Johnson but Faith Hill, Leontyne Price. Freddie Waits, the drummer, and Dick Griffin, trombonist. Jimmy Buffett, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Brandy, LeAnn Rimes. And Cassandra Wilson.
It's the water, I guess. I don't know.
What is it about Mississippi, you think, that generates such musicality?
Mississippi is a strange place. We're at the bottom, at the very bottom in so many ways. Metaphorically, physically, we're at the very bottom. I think that you have to develop a certain kind of curiosity, eccentricity. There's a certain creativity, I think, you develop as a result of all of the pressure that there is in being and living in Mississippi.
If you ever write a book or someone asks you, "What is your legacy as a musician?" how would you describe Cassandra Wilson's legacy to music?
I love what you said earlier about being a peacemaker. I think that's a very part of who I am and what I do, is bringing disparate elements together and realizing common ground. I think it's important to do that musically. I think it's important for us to do that in the world. I want to be remembered for doing that. I also want to be remembered for the spirituality. Tapping into a spirituality inside of the music is very important.
And I understand you also are teaching the next generation with workshops.
We have begun to do workshops at the Yellow Scarf in Jackson, Mississippi. We take on young people who are interested in music, teach them a little bit about the business. It's not just about learning how to work with the notes and the tones. It's also about learning how to carry yourself in the marketplace.