Jazz Master Nancy Wilson

January 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: In New York City this evening several greats from the world of jazz are being honored. Arts correspondent Jeffrey Brown talked recently to one of them.

NANCY WILSON SINGING: Lately I find myself out gazing at stars.

JEFFREY BROWN: Nancy Wilson began singing professionally at age 15, in the night clubs and dance halls of Columbus, Ohio. She recorded her first album in 1960, after being heard by saxophone great Cannonball Adderley, with whom she would later collaborate. Wilson was a major recording star by the mid ’60s, known for her beautiful voice and presence, and her way with a song.

NANCY WILSON SINGING: Come on and get happy, I got to be happy.

JEFFREY BROWN: She also moved easily into the pop world including hosting her own television programs. In all, Wilson has reported more than 60 albums. The latest with composer pianist Ramsey Lewis was released last year.

NANCY WILSON SINGING: You know how to make me call your name. You know how to make me jump for joy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now at 66, Nancy Wilson has been named a Jazz Master. The prestigious award given by the National Endowment for the Arts to honor the greats of the jazz world. We talked earlier this week in New York. Nancy Wilson, congratulations, and welcome.

NANCY WILSON: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.

JEFFREY BROWN: People have referred to you in the past as a jazz singer, or as a pop singer, and I’ve seen you refer to yourself as a song stylist. What does that mean?

NANCY WILSON: Give me the freedom to be a pop singer, R and B singer, jazz singer. It’s really about the lyric as opposed to the melody, and that’s my approach to the music is lyrically. I love the song, I love what it says. And I think song stylist gives me the freedom to sing all kinds of things and not be put in a box necessarily.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don’t care about categories?

NANCY WILSON: When I started professionally at the age of 15, we didn’t have all those little boxes. Singers sang songs, writers wrote, producers produced, arrangers arranged. There was a professionalism about it, I think, that you don’t find today, you do not find it today. The music that I was singing at 15 was the pop music of the day, although I’m still singing it today, and it is called jazz.

JEFFREY BROWN: What makes a great song?

NANCY WILSON: I want to tell you a story, I want the song to have legs, I want it to mean something to you ten years from now. It’s kind of like acting. You know, you go there. You do little vignettes, each song is a play.

That’s always been my approach to it, you know. I can close my eyes and go where that song goes. And visualize and really see that, you know, I love it. I’ve been criticized for closing my eyes and doing it, but it’s still a part of who I am.

JEFFREY BROWN: So when you’re taking on a song, a standard that many of these wonderful singers have done before, how do you make it your own, how do you make it Nancy Wilson’s?

NANCY WILSON: I’m just going to point to, “You Can Have Him,” an old Irving Berlin song that I heard by someone else, obviously. And my approach is just a little different, you know, music is personal. You know.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you do it for us?

NANCY WILSON: I can do the beginning of it probably, I haven’t sung it in … maybe 20 years or so. “I don’t want him, you can have him, he’s not worth fighting for, besides, they’re plenty more where he came from.”

See, that’s all drama, I don’t want him, you’re talking to the women, and your talking to him, you can have him, it’s a perfect song for the stage. “I’m giving him the sack and he can go right back.” At that point in time I was singing to Philadelphia where he came from, and it’s just, and I love songs that set up, I love the verses to songs that set up the body of the work. That’s why I love “You Can Have Him”. It was a story within a story. It was very dramatic, a lot of fun to do, and women loved it.

JEFFREY BROWN: For a number of years in the ’60s, you recorded at least two albums a year.


JEFFREY BROWN: That was a different era.

NANCY WILSON: Different time. Wonderful record label. Capitol Records was the singer’s label. It was the label of Peggy Lee, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Tennessee Ernie Ford. Now you talk about some turning out some product. And we had great producers. It was musicians who literally owned it, I mean, Johnny Mercer was one of the owners. One of the reasons I wanted to be with Capitol because they were into the music and it wasn’t about the bottom line. The bottom line, the suits came along later.

JEFFREY BROWN: I often see you referred to as one of the last greats of the golden era of singers. Who did you learn from, who did you listen to?

NANCY WILSON: My father was the one who really listened to the recordings. So my early influences were male, it was Billy Eckstein, Nat Cole, and Little Jimmy Scott. Then I found Sarah, I was around 15.

JEFFREY BROWN: Sarah Vaughn —

NANCY WILSON: Sarah Vaughn, the brilliance of that voice. The humor Diana Washington. The sound is Jimmy Scott. And then the overall picture, Lena Horne. And I never saw any of these people perform at 15. But I heard them on recording, and I saw their pictures, and I knew who they were. And I just loved the music, I loved the songs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does it seem to you now like it was a golden era of singers?

NANCY WILSON: Never going to be that good again.


NANCY WILSON: Never going to be that good again. There’s not enough room, we don’t allow the freedom today, we don’t give them the space. We don’t give young singers the opportunity to be Lena Horne.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what is it that makes them great, what did they have?

NANCY WILSON: They had a spirit about them, which was one thing, but they also had energy. They had wonderful voices, they had, there was a freedom about Ella Fitzgerald that you will just never hear. The laughter, the grace of her voice is unreal. They get into your blood, and if they can make your pulse rate go up a little bit because of something that they did, that was wonderful.

And you understood everything they were saying, the clarity of the music was there. That was what I liked. I appreciate the fact that I was called the baby of this generation of wonderful performers and singers — from Bessie Smith on down, you know. I’m proud of that, and the tradition of great singers was, is still there. It will come back. We will have — the music will still be heard somewhere on a dial on the radio. In the air some place, the music is still there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Nancy Wilson, congratulations and thanks again.

NANCY WILSON: Thank you very much.