Cassandra Wilson at the Crossroads on her "Silver Pony"
By: Art Jackson
November 11, 2010
Photos: Cassandra Wilson CD "Silver Pony " Release Event
For the two time Grammy winner and native of Jackson Mississippi, Cassandra Wilson has become one of the premiere Jazz vocalists of our day, compared to greats like Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
The new release from her Blue Note Record Label, “Silver Pony” is getting rave reviews. This unique record, has songs recorded live from her European tour dates from Warsaw to Guimares, and then some studio tracks from the famed New Orleans’ Piety Street Studios with artists like R&B singer-songwriter John Legend (“Watch The Sunrise”) and special guests saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (“Silver Moon”). As Cassandra stated, “I wanted to see what would happen by doing it this way. I never tried it before. And quite honestly, I felt that some of the live performances over the last two years were better than what we were doing in the studio. So I wanted to see what would happen if we combine the two.”
The CD, “Silver Pony” features a photo of Cassandra at the tender age of 4 ½. It was about a year later that she has her first remembrance of her love for Jazz. Since her father was a musician/educator and a big fan of Miles Davis, “Sketches Of Spain,” Cassandra's love of jazz grew from her childhood exposure. Being born into a culture where music was prevalent, the concept of becoming a professional musician did not arise until Cassandra was not able to find work in the television industry. As a Mass Communications Major from Jackson State University, she could not get a job. Her mother always wanted for her to get a degree in order to have something she could fall back on in case she was unable to make it in music. But ironically, the music is what she ultimately fell back on when finding work using her degree failed. At the age of 24, she left for New York. Getting the degree gave Cassandra time to get an understanding of certain processes before getting out into the world.
Cassandra's hometown of Jackson, Mississippi is the heartbeat of American music. This is the region extending from New Orleans to the south and Memphis to the north and; from Atlanta to the east and Dallas to the west. Growing up here, you can absorb all forms of music, and; are exposed to Country, Funk, Jazz and the Blues. In her early CDs, she covered great Blues greats, such as Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. While she was known as a Jazz singer, she was able to give the Blues a certain sophistication. She once stated that while in New York, a funny thing happened on her way to the Blue Note Club. She realized that she came from the place that all this incredible music was from, and Jazz was actually using the Blues as its building block. From that moment on, "I never paid attention to people who were trying to separate Jazz from the Blues, because there were so many great Blues artists and music that needs to be shared with the world".
Dismissing the stereo-type that all African-Americans grew up singing in the Baptist church, as a Presbyterian, Cassandra recalls singing hymns, but they were a little starchy, not the emotional traditional Baptist hymns. Wanting to really learn her craft, New Orleans was her first destination. She wanted to get a strong feeling of the birthplace of Jazz and what that meant. She met the patriarch of the Marsalis family, Ellis Marsalis, who took her under his wings before going to New York. Once in New York, Cassandra was terrified and naïve from the culture shock. She was not used to the crowd of people in the supermarket nor did she realize that she didn’t have to say good-night to everyone in the club before leaving.
Her first official gig was in 1982, in the Bronx, this was a renaissance time where there were a lot of clubs set up for young musicians. With a lot of jam sessions in which she was able to meet and sit in with fascinating musicians every night like Joe Jones, Art Blakely, Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw and the list went on and on. She felt like she was living a dream.
As far as a female artist influences, Abbey Lincoln had a profound impact on the choices Cassandra made. Cassandra states that, “by spending a lot of time together, she got me to write my own music, she helped me to push the boundaries to try and do a lot of things.”
She came from a background where becoming wealthy wasn’t the goal in music. She felt already wealthy with her love of music and the community around her, so she didn’t choose this music to become famous, but her main focus is to preserve a tradition and preserve the music. “At times when I didn’t have money, I had to live off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches but that’s was only because when I would call home and ask my mother for money, she got tired of me asking and wouldn’t give it to me, and I was 35 at the time.” So in her mid 30’s is when Cassandra got really serious about her music; and, she got a contract with Blue Note Records.
On this new CD, “Silver Pony”, Charlie Patton, a Mississippi Blues singer who died in the early 1930’s and whose lyrics caught the eye of Cassandra, was an inspiration. Not only were his lyrics also used by Louis Armstrong, but Charlie was also the origin of the Blues lyrics which Cassandra believed has a lot of embedded codes in them. Because of this, she began listening to his music and decided to cut a track. Cassandra shows her versatility with also having Pop legends Lennon/McCartney songs as well. This duo is one of the first Pop acts to actually say they got their inspiration from the Blues. She has a great appreciation for what the Beatles had done, and was supportive of Muddy Waters as shown in the movie Cadillac Records, which is played every day on her tour. As It showed what the pioneers had to go through, and it was an inspiration to the band to see the comraderie.
With each song Cassandra sings, whether its a cover song or one that she writes is autobiographical, “something in each song has to ring true for me (in order) for me to perform them.” Her musical taste ranges from Classical to Indian (India) and West Africa music, “Yoruba.” Most African-Americans come from the group/area of people known as the Yoruba. Cassandra personally has a place in New Orleans that she rents, and a place in Woodstock. She really doesn’t consider any one place as home. Constantly in movement, on tour, and between cities, she is more of a nomad which could be attributed from her grandmother who was considered somewhat of a nomad herself as she walked the roads of Mississippi. So it’s in her blood; and, Cassandra is comfortable with it, as she is at the Crossroad on her “Silver Pony”.
Fact #1: Most people do not know that the state Mississippi has the greatest amount of Grammy Award winners.
Fact #2: Cassandra will be the opening act for Prince’s upcoming tour.
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