Singer Cassandra Wilson

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Multiple Grammy-winner talks about her new CD and discusses spirituality, the blues and the need for jazz musicians to be fearless.

A world-renowned vocalist, songwriter and producer, Cassandra Wilson was crowned by Time magazine as "the true heir of Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan." With a string of four consecutive years as Down Beat magazine's top female jazz vocalist, she still maintained a crossover fan base. A native of Jackson, MS, she was classically trained on piano from age 6. After college and a period in New Orleans, she took her chances on the New York jazz scene. The multiple Grammy winner has a newly released CD, "Silver Pony," and will soon be touring with Prince.


Tavis: Please welcome Cassandra Wilson back to this program. The Grammy-winning jazz artist is out this week with a new CD called “Silver Pony.“The disc was recorded live at the Piety Street Recordings in New Orleans and also includes special guests, John Legend and Ravi Coltrane. Cassandra, good to have you back on the program.
Cassandra Wilson: Thank you so much, Tavis.
Tavis: Jose, pull up this cover for me again. So you got to explain this cover. It’s cute, but you want to explain this, Ms. Wilson?
Wilson: (Laughter) That’s my first time being on a pony. I was four and a half years old and there was a guy that came to the neighborhood. He brought a camera with him and he’d take your picture. So my mother actually intended for my brothers to take the picture on the pony, but neither one of them wanted to do it. So I begged her, please, let me. I wanted to get on the pony because I loved ponies.
She said, “Well, that’s not really something little girls do.” She also said, “I think you’re a little bit too young to do that. I think you’ll be scared.” you know, and all these things. Finally she acquiesced and she let me take the picture. It was like a big moment for me.
Tavis: Yeah. And 15 years later, it ends up on the cover of your album.
Wilson: Yeah, approximately 15 years.
Tavis: About 15 years (laughter). I’m always fascinated by the back story in this stuff because, I mean, I’m glad you told the story. But how does that weave its way these years later to an album cover?
Wilson: Well, it’s strange how things happen. It weaves its way because it’s time, you know. The photograph has always been a favorite of mine and, every time I see it, it inspires me. If I’m going through something that’s really difficult, if there are obstacles, I always look at that photograph and it reminds me of how I felt – very confident, assured, fearless. So this music is confident, it’s fearless, it’s improvisation with some of the greatest jazz musicians on the planet.
Tavis: I want to come back to some of the stuff on here because you are a bold sister, given some of the stuff you have covered. You handled it, but you were bold to make these choices. But to your formulation of a moment ago, Cassandra, about being confident, assured and fearless, I think was the order you put it in, has that always been the case over the course of this career or were there moments when all of that went out the window and it was the exact opposite?
Wilson: I think that’s a part of the DNA of a jazz musician. You don’t get into this music because, you know, you want to become a big star or you want to make a lot of money. You get into it because you are fearless and you want to experiment and you want to explore, and that’s part of being a jazz musician.
Tavis: To the project itself, I joked a moment ago about some of this stuff you chose to cover. Again, you handled it. I won’t call names, but sometimes I sit on this set and I see people who come on to promote things they’ve covered. Not long ago, somebody was here and they’re wonderful artists, but I was like you should have left that alone. That’s what I was thinking. I wouldn’t have said it on the air (laughter), but some things just ought not to be touched.
But you were pretty bold here. You got some Beatles on here, you got some Muddy Waters on here, you got some Steveland Morris, some Stevie Wonder on here. You gonna tell me about these choices and why you decided to touch that stuff?
Wilson: Well, let me tell you about the first thing. This is my first time approaching Stevie Wonder because I do believe, like you say, some folks you just can’t mess with their music, and Stevie Wonder is one of them. That’s why it took me until I’m however old I am to cover his music. Because his music is like the soundtrack of my life, you know, growing up. I have all of his albums. I think he’s an incredible genius and he has a stamp. But that song, the way that it evolved in the studio –
Tavis: – that song is “If It’s Magic?”
Wilson: “If It’s Magic.”
Tavis: Great song.
Wilson: Yeah.
Tavis: Nice tempo.
Wilson: Yeah.
Tavis: You slowed it down. It’s already slow; you slowed it down.
Wilson: We took it into a dream space, I think. It sits in the center of the whole project. It’s almost as if it’s a place where we can all just go inside. It’s a wonderful arrangement, I think. The musicians are improvising.
Tavis: It is beautiful. When you say it sits at the center of the project, I don’t know if you meant that literally, but it literally does. In the sequencing of the album, 11 tracks, track number six is “If It’s Magic.” Tell me more about it being the center literally of the project.
Wilson: Well, because we’re going in and out of different states of consciousness, you know. We’re going in and out of the live musicians’ head and the studio musicians. So that’s a place inside of the whole project where it’s very ethereal and I think it’s meant to quiet the mind so that you can, you know, just enjoy the richness of the oral images that are being painted. That’s why it’s a great place for it to be. You know, it’s almost like a respite so you can relax and just breathe.
Tavis: I mentioned the Beatles earlier, Paul McCartney specifically, “Black Bird.” Tell me about this one.
Wilson: That’s a great song. You know, it’s my understanding that Paul wrote this during the civil rights era.
Tavis: Which most folks don’t know, I think, yeah.
Wilson: Yeah. It’s a very powerful piece and I think it says a lot about how I feel about what we should be doing as a people right now. It’s a brilliant song. Lots of people have covered it, you know. This is actually a treatment that I found maybe about ten or fifteen years ago that I used with another band and decided to bring it back and see what it would sound like with this one.
Tavis: Since you went there, you know I’m gonna follow you there, that comment about what you think we ought to be doing as a people right now. Is that politically? Socially? Economically? Culturally? You gonna unpack that for me?
Wilson: Yes, sir.
Tavis: Okay.
Wilson: Sure will.
Tavis: All the above?
Wilson: Let me run it down (laughter).
Tavis: (Laughter) I’m waiting. The audience is listening.
Wilson: Well, the song says, “Why don’t you take your wings? Why don’t you take your wings and fly?” There’s so much that we have psychologically as a burden. You know, we’re carrying a lot of baggage as a people and it’s time for us to release that and fly and to move on and to be able to build on what – you know, there’s a brilliant path that’s already been laid for us. All we have to do is take the chance and go for it. I think there’s so much that’s holding us back psychologically, you know.
We have a lot of emotion – you know Joy DeGruy. You know, she talks about the issues that we have as a result of being enslaved. That’s something we need to come face to face with, acknowledge it, learn as much as we can about our history, study Egypt. That’s really important right now. We are so caught up in studying the Bible and we’re so caught up in Christianity. I think that that’s, if I may say so, that’s a large part of what’s holding us back.
Tavis: Okay.
Wilson: Did I say that?
Tavis: Let me reprise that line. Since you went there, I’m gonna follow you again. This is your conversation. I’m just following you. I know exactly – I don’t want to be presumptuous. I think I know because I’ve had this conversation with myself and other friends of mine many, many times.
I think I know exactly what you meant by that and I think there is wisdom in that, that so many of our people tend to use – let me just say this right quick before I get myself in trouble again. I am a Christian. I am in love with and I am a follower of that first century Palestinian Jew named Jesus. Let me just set that straight now.
Having said that, I grew up in a Pentecostal church seven days a week and I still believe, to your point now, I think – I’ll let you unpack it some more – that so many of us use our faith, we use the Bible, as a crutch and it doesn’t allow us to oftentimes think for ourselves, doesn’t allow us to explore. We get stuck in this space. Although I believe in the living God – my personal opinion – we get stuck in this space and I think I hear what you’re saying that we don’t move beyond and learn and wrestle with and explore more. Is that what you’re trying to say?
Wilson: Yeah, absolutely. We don’t really ask the good questions about the Bible and the stories in the Bible. For one thing, you know, this is something that I’m discovering recently. Moses is not – there was no Moses. Moses was actually an Egyptian pharaoh as was Solomon. All of the stories that are in the Bible are actually rehashed. They’re stories that have been taken from out of Egyptian history, rehashed and they’re sold to us as stories about Israel. But this is not quite the truth.
This is my opinion, but all I’m saying is that we need to just do the research. You know, I have to say I believe that Jesus existed, but I believe that we’re too preoccupied with Him. There’s so much about our own culture that we’ve yet to learn, you know, about – Abbey Lincoln has this wonderful poem. She says, “Where are the African gods?” Where are the African gods? If young children are growing up and they’re not learning about or seeing artwork that describes African spirituality, how do you expect them –
Tavis: – I want to be clear, though. You’re not suggesting – you and I are both born in Mississippi, you in Jackson, me in Gulfport, so we’re from the south. We have those roots. You’re not suggesting, though, that you’re naive about the role that faith and a belief in something bigger than us has played in our people overcoming over these 400 years?
Wilson: I’m not.
Tavis: You’re not demonizing that?
Wilson: No, no, not at all.
Tavis: Or casting dispersion on that?
Wilson: Oh, no, no, no. I think that – but there’s a hidden part of the story that has also propelled us and helped us to escape the bonds of slavery. There’s another whole bit picture in there that we don’t know about that we don’t even talk about, you know, in terms of our own spiritual systems that we’ve brought to the United States. We don’t even take a look at that. We’re taught that that’s evil, that anything that was invented by or that was practiced by the West Africans is evil. Oh, voodoo. That’s the bad. You shouldn’t mess with voodoo. Why?
Tavis: We could spend hours on this.
Wilson: (Laughter) I’m sorry.
Tavis: And my momma’s watching right now and she wishes that I would. But, momma, I ain’t got but so much time to keep taking Cassandra on. That said, I’m wondering how our rediscovery of this, what it is that you and so many others do so well, how our rediscovery of this, this art form, might bring us back into alignment, might put us in greater harmony with those things that you think we’re missing? If jazz can’t do that in some way, I don’t know what can. You tell me, though.
Wilson: That’s a great question. It’s brilliant. Thank you for asking it. There seems to be like this rabid, this intense, movement to distance the blues from jazz. You and I know as Mississippians this is a form that really comes from out of the Delta. Why do we feel the need to separate these two forms? The blues not only informs jazz and helps to create jazz – because New Orleans is not an island. It’s only 45 minutes from Mississippi, right?
So the blues feeds jazz. It feeds rock and roll. It feeds country music. It feeds everything that we can think of that is American popular music. So that’s how we get the alignment is to not look at the separateness of the music, but really look at how this very important form that African Americans created has now gone all over the world.
Tavis: I’ve always believed that the mark of a great conversation – if I must say so with humility – the mark of a great conversation is leaving you wanting more. For whatever reasons, I suspect you probably want more of this conversation, but I’m out of time.
The good news is that you can pick this up, bam, the new CD from Cassandra Wilson and get more of this good stuff, the really good stuff. It is her new CD. It’s called Silver Pony with some great covers of the stuff that we’ve talked about tonight and stuff that we couldn’t get to. But you will not be disappointed, as I never am whenever I pick up a CD that has your name on it.
Wilson: I appreciate you so much.
Tavis: Glad to have you here.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm