Cassandra Wilson by Glenn O'Brien

BOMB 67 Spring 1999
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Cassandra Wilson. Photos for BOMB by Farrell Duncan © 1999.

Cassandra Wilson is one of the most innovative and compelling musicians working today in the increasingly hard-to-define (and maybe that’s good) world of jazz. She’s a singer, a contralto who sometimes reminds me of Betty Carter and sometimes of Abby Lincoln but who is always true to her own evolving musicianship. She has recorded about a dozen albums as a leader, including the best-sellers Blue Light ’Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter. These recordings are distinguished by innovative arrangements and textures and an extraordinarily eclectic choice of material, including songs from sources as diverse as Robert Johnson, Joni Mitchell, Hoagy Carmichael, Van Morrison, U2, Neil Young, and Hank Williams, as well as her own compositions, which easily hold their own amid the masters. She has also lent her vocal talents to numerous projects of her peers, perhaps most notably in her performance as Leona, a slave, in Wynton Marsalis’s jazz oratorio Blood on the Fields. Her new album Traveling Milesis a tribute to Miles Davis and features compositions made famous by the legendary trumpet player.

Glenn O’Brien Was doing an album of Miles Davis material your idea? I know you were commissioned by Jazz at Lincoln Center to do a Miles tribute, but what was the origin of it?

Cassandra Wilson The idea first came out on the Blood on the Fields tour. We talked with Rob Gibson at Lincoln Center who commissioned the Traveling Miles tour and I suggested the tribute to Miles Davis and that led to doing a recording.

GO You’d done a couple of things associated with Miles before, right? Like Round Midnight, I think that’s on one of your records.

CW Yes.

GO It’s in your bio that when you were a kid you heard Sketches of Spain around the house. Was your father a Miles fan?

CW Big Miles fan. Miles, Cannonball Adderly, and he loved Jimmy Smith. Sarah Vaughan he loved, Nancy Wilson. Yeah, Sketches of Spain was one of the first albums I remember listening to as a toddler and I remember the album cover, especially, as a kid you get drawn to what’s highly visual. I’d just sit and look at the cover and listen to the music.

GO Did you connect with jazz at a young age?

CW I didn’t know it to be jazz, I just knew it to be music. So when you use that word … Did I at five or six years old know that this was jazz? At that age I don’t think I knew what the name of it was. But I knew that my daddy loved this music and I would sit and listen to it and play while he was listening. I was, you know, always at his feet, hanging out and doing the things that he enjoyed, finding pleasure in the things that he enjoyed.

GO And what was the first record you ever bought?

CW A Monkees record, the one that had “Last Train to Clarksville” on it— which I put on New Moon Daughter.

GO Was that ’cause you’d seen them on TV?

CW Yeah. I used to watch The Monkees out of the corner of my eye when I had my piano lessons. Saturdays about three or four o’clock every week, that’s when it would come on, at the tail end of my lesson. My brothers were watching it in the other room, and I’d be really distracted. I’d be trying to do my lesson and watch The Monkees.

GO What did your piano teacher think of The Monkees?

CW He didn’t really care. (laughter) He didn’t. He had a very relaxed approach to teaching. The one thing I remember about him was that he didn’t care about the numbers for the fingerings on the page either, which was really unusual. Most piano teachers follow that like the Bible. You know? There are numbers under each note to tell you which finger you’re supposed to use and he may have used them, but he didn’t care about it; that was not really a sticking point for him. When you performed, when you played in front of him, he looked at the whole piece and what you brought to it.

GO What kind of pieces did you learn on?

CW The usual stuff: The Clementi-type sonatas, the Beethoven stuff, “Für Elise,” “Moonlight Sonata.” That whole course.

GO You had a little group when you were in high school?

CW Yes. The first group I had was in high school with these guys who played guitar and we did a lot of cover material. We did a lot of James Taylor, some Joni Mitchell tunes, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens—that version of “Here Comes The Sun”—that kind of stuff.

GO And did you start to write original stuff in that context?

CW Well, I was writing original material when I first started playing the guitar when I was 12.

GO Did you play in that group or did you sing?

CW I played and sang in that group, yeah.

GO Guitar or piano?

CW Guitar.

GO Is that your best instrument?

CW I don’t know if I would describe it as my best. I go back and forth between the piano and the guitar, whenever I get bored with one. Switching makes it easier for me to get reignited.

GO Is one more useful for you in songwriting than the other?

CW The piano is still very much an instrument that I relate to technically, although I certainly didn’t have as formal an education on it as most people but still there’s a connection I make mentally every time I sit down at the piano. There’s a connection I make to ways of looking at how to create music technically. That doesn’t happen on the guitar because I taught myself the guitar. There was no teacher for the guitar. My father gave me a couple of guitar method books. I think he realized I was tired of taking lessons and thought it’d be a good idea for me to learn an instrument on my own and create a relationship with an instrument without someone conducting the lessons.

GO I remember reading this thing about Miles—I don’t know if it was an interview or on liner notes—but he was talking about his influences in his playing and none of the people he mentioned were trumpet players. It was like Ahmad Jamal, Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles’s voice. As a singer were you more influenced by singers or instrumentalists?

CW I don’t know if that’s something I can measure. I think I’ve been influenced by both, and I go through periods where I’m more influenced by instrumentalists, and periods where I’m influenced by singers. It’s not something I can quantify.

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GO You’ve made records with horn players on certain tracks but have you ever had horn in your regular group?

CW No. (laughter) I have not.

GO Are your vocals the horn in the group?

CW Yes.

GO You live in New York, right?

CW Yes.

GO It seems like 30 or 40 years ago, even more recently, there were a lot of clubs where musicians used to go to sit in with each other. But does that kind of community exist anymore? How do you know everybody?

CW I think everybody still knows everybody and knows of everybody. I don’t think people have that immediate sense of what’s happening anymore because of what’s happened uptown especially after the clubs in Harlem began to disappear. Then the younger musicians started depending more on the downtown scene in order to jam and to learn the music. When I first came to New York in ’82 there was a very strong scene uptown in Harlem as well as downtown. So a young musician could go into a club like Lickety-Split or Small’s Paradise or Carl’s on the Corner, which was at 145th and Broadway—there’s a McDonald’s there now. You could go to these clubs and hang out and see the older musicians and develop a relationship with them and learn from them, you know, serve a kind of apprenticeship. I don’t know if that’s still intact today. I think there are a lot of younger musicians who go out and hang out and develop ideas on their own, but I don’t think the older musicians are there as much.

GO Maybe New York isn’t such a friendly place for older musicians to live anymore. It seems like the old bop guys would rather live in Stockholm or Paris. The other night I saw that you have a couple of really young guys in the group. How did you find your drummer and piano player? Those guys were great, by the way. Your piano player was pretty laid back and then suddenly he played this solo and I was practically falling from my chair.

CW I feel very fortunate. That’s Jason Moran. Jason fascinates me. I would love to be able to create more space for him to improvise. But I get the sense he’s content because the spaces he does get he really develops well and he’s comfortable and that’s good. Marcus Baylor is the drummer. He has got a lot of technique and we work on him: Lonnie, my musical director, and I talk to him constantly about getting other sounds in the music—you know, how to invest yourself emotionally. It’s not all about having the chops or showing off how much you know or how much you can do on the drums, but having something inside the music that you can connect with emotionally. He’s come a long way.

GO How long have you been working with your bassist and musical director, Lonnie Plesico?

CW We met about 15 years ago, but he didn’t join my band till about six, seven years ago. He’s worked with so many people. Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon. Before he joined me he was working with Greg Osby a lot.

GO In the old days, pre-electric Miles, the producer put the session together and sat there while the tape ran. Now, I guess, through the impact of technology and also the influence of pop music, the producer is a whole different thing. I know you’ve produced yourself a lot and worked with a lot of pretty interesting producers, but how … how do you see that role? I mean … uh, save me …

CW No, go ahead. (laughter) That’s what I say to my producers: “Save me.”

GO Is that the role of the producer, a savior?

CW Yeah, that’s one role.

GO You worked with a pretty interesting producer, Craig Street.

CW I learned a lot from him.

GO I really liked the stuff that you did with him. It was very original. And I was kind of knocked out by that k. d. lang record he made. I don’t know, it opened my eyes to her. And it had some really interesting textures on it. Do you think it’s important that a record is duplicable in performance?

CW No, not at all. Most of the time it isn’t. Because you have this rarefied environment where you create this music. You’re not going to recreate it live, so you just use it as a road map. It’s a framework, a foundation. And I find that all the music we begin to perform live is so different from what we started with.

GO How much is improvised from night to night? I mean, how is it different from Wednesday to Thursday?

CW Depends. Each night is very different because of the improvisation. The structures are the same, the song forms may or may not be the same as every other night. I want to get the band to the point where we can alter the form right there—you wanna just hang inside of a certain change, or be in a space for a couple more bars than you did the night before and allow room for the development of ideas. That has to happen to keep the music in a growth mode. It has to constantly evolve and, hopefully, take us from this project to the next.

GO I don’t know if it was in the review in the Times that you got, or somewhere else that I read a reference to you talking about the jazz police, I guess referring to people with very strict ideas about what jazz is supposed to be. And then—I don’t know if you saw it—in the Timesyesterday, all the critics named their ten best uncategorizable records for the year. There were some really interesting choices, things from all around the world and weird American stuff that doesn’t fall into any easy category. I guess that’s something that you deal with because you like doing songs by a variety of artists from U2 or the Monkees to Robert Johnson and Son House. Do you think that the business is going to get any better as far as dealing with really great artists where they don’t know which rack to put them in or what radio station to play them on? Do you see things opening up at all, as far as transcending category goes?

CW Sure. I hope so. I do.

GO It’s a big problem with radio. There’s a few college stations that will play anything, but it seems like in this country, it’s very bad as far as stations being regimented by playlists goes.

CW Radio’s sad. I don’t listen to radio because you turn to a station and you hear basically the same song being recycled. It’s the same music, a particular kind of music, and it’s all become so specialized that you don’t get the music that falls in between. Instead of the really interesting music you get the more formulaic music. And I don’t recall music being that way when I was coming up in the ’60s and in the ’70s.

GO I remember things crossing over in the ’60s, which could never happen today. Ray Charles had a lot of hits on the country charts and there was that guy—I forget his name—who had that song in Japanese—”Sukiyaki”—that went to number one! (laughter) I just don’t think anything like that could happen today. I tried to find that k. d. lang record all over Tower Records and couldn’t. I looked under vocalists, I looked in the pop section on the first floor, and finally I said, “Do you have the k. d. lang record?” They said, “Oh yeah, that’s country.” And if you listen to the record there’s nothing at all country about it but I guess it’s hard to break out of the category. What do you listen to? You don’t listen to radio, do you listen to music?

CW Yes. I cover a lot of ground and try to listen to as many different kinds of music as possible.

GO I try to push myself not to just listen to old music all the time because I could very easily just listen to old masters and not check out anything new. The things these critics from the Times wrote about are things that you have to go out of your way to find. That’s their full-time job. But today, the burden is really on the listener.

CW Yes. What’s new is not really readily accessible.

GO But if you go to Europe and turn on the radio, sometimes you’ll hear the weirdest mix of things. Something African followed by some pop song. It’s very educational in a way.

CW Yeah, yeah. But they’re much more mature. (laughter) They’re farther along in terms of openness than we are here in the States.

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GO Your record Jump World presents a theory about music and its spiritual effects. Obviously there’s a lot of music that’s uplifting and healing but do you think there’s music that has negative effects?

CW We hear about people committing suicide. And (laughter) they listen to music—I’d say—that’s pretty negative. Certain kinds of music have negative effects, sure, I think that’s possible.

GO Sometimes I hear things and think well, maybe I’m just like, old. Maybe if I were 17 I would understand what this speed metal is all about, but …

CW I think the nihilism is real, it’s there. And it’s a phase, a trend, and it tells us a lot about who we are. You can’t really separate yourself from the people who are listening to that music and digging it; there’s a reason why.

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GO But it’s kind of difficult to figure out where it comes from and where it finds that form. I mean there was this thing on 60 Minutes a couple of weeks ago about an Israeli conductor and this controversy over him performing Wagner, whose music is almost illegal in Israel, and he was saying that there’s nothing racist in the music—just because Hitler liked it.

CW You can’t look at Wagner in a vacuum. You associate his music with a particular epoch or period in man’s evolution and history, you connect it with some sort of dogma. I think people will look upon some of the more negative rap music the same way. You connect it with a certain ideology. That might be too big of a word for what exactly is happening but I think you can’t separate the music. You can’t look at it as this pure thing that exists outside of its context. People will always associate certain kinds of music or certain trends in music with the historical context, don’t you think?

GO Yeah, I do. I know that you’re really into the Delta blues stuff. It’s interesting what happened with blues in the ’60s—it being adopted by mass pop culture, exposing that music to a whole new audience. But maybe there’s a negative side. I think it’s great if someone takes that music and plays it the way it was written. But then sometimes people try to change something and so what effect does that have on the blues? You have a beat—it’s like a classical beat that maybe comes from Africa or Haiti, that’s a very specific rhythm, or a very specific chord. People change it to make it theirs, to make it original, and maybe that adulterates it in some way.

CW No. It’s your responsibility as a jazz musician not to adulterate, but to augment, to extend, to amplify, to reconfigure, because that’s the whole foundation, that’s the whole basis of this music, jazz. That’s why it’s considered to be derived more from an African aesthetic than a European aesthetic. It’s dynamic and life can enter into it. There’s a parallel between the religion and the music. It’s a living music, as is the religion—that has not been really acknowledged as a part of that tradition, but I think the two parallel each other. Religion goes through so many manifestations in order to survive.

GO I thought one of the good things about hip-hop was that you could take a phrase from a record and appropriate it and repeat it the way it was without feeling like, Well, I have to change this, ’cause of copyright laws, or to make it seem like I wrote it or so I can put my name on it. In a way that was a breakthrough because I don’t think you can own a chord, a chord change—

CW No, you can’t.

GO So to say, Yeah, it’s okay to repeat that, I think was good. And I guess that was what the bop guys did when they would take standards—

CW Oh my God! (laughter)

GO —and rearrange them.

CW That’s a large part of the methodology in bebop. You take things and turn them upside down. Bird did that constantly. You write tunes over tunes. Then people come along who will write tunes over his tunes. Throughout the tradition of jazz you have people constantly rearranging the music and calling it something new. I talk about this on the set when I do “Prancing,” which is a tune derived from Miles Davis’s original, “original” called “Francing,” but if you break it down and you slow it down and listen to the main melody line, it’s a blues lick from Muddy Waters. And I’m sure that somebody else wrote it a long time before Muddy Waters. It’s a basic blues lick—everybody knows it, everybody plays it. Muddy Waters created a song based on that motif. Miles Davis came along and added a bebopping inflection to it, threw some triplet fields inside of it and called it “Francing.” Change the chords that ride beneath the melody and it becomes a bebop standard.

GO Was it easy for you to pick out the stuff from Miles’s repertoire that you were gonna do? There’s so much there.

CW Yeah, it was pretty easy. I just let things happen. It all kind of came to me, instead of me going out looking for it. There’s such a large body of Miles Davis’s work; it spans five, six decades. So I really had to wait and see what would pop up and what would resonate.

GO I really liked you writing lyrics for some stuff that didn’t have lyrics. Did you ever hear Carmen McRae’s Monk album?

CW Yeah, it’s fantastic.

GO She wrote words to songs that never had lyrics and they’re phenomenal—it’s like they were sitting in the same room composing the songs.

CW It is beautiful.

GO What are you listening to these days for pleasure?

CW A lot of Brazilian music for some reason. I love Brazilian music, I love it. I just have to have it with me constantly. There’s an album called Elis and Tom with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Elis Regina who’s a famous Brazilian singer, she sings these pieces and just blows me away. The orchestration is so rich. Pixinguinha is a guy I’ve been listening to who was a contemporary of Duke Ellington. It’s very orchestrated, but kind of weird music—very, very complex rhythmically. I gravitate towards music that is rich rhythmically.

GO You ever been to Cuba?

CW No, but I plan on going there real soon, real soon. Gotta get there.

GO I think that’ll have a great effect on music when that opens up …

CW Oh God, I can’t wait.

GO Have you been to Brazil?

CW Yes.

GO Played there?

CW Yes. I was there about four years ago in São Paulo and Rio, did the festival there. I didn’t get to Bahia, that’s the spot I wanted, I still want, to get to. I saw Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil in concert together, and it was remarkable, I was so touched by that concert. The thing I really love about Brazilian music is that there’s always the underpinning of the religious and spiritual beliefs. And it’s so funny. Almost every one of those artists sings about Brazil, and you almost always hear some point in any song where they go, (singing) “Oh Brazil.”  (laughter) We don’t do that in America, we don’t have any kind of music that points to our pride in our country. And I was thinking about that the other day. There’s a great deal of poverty in Brazil, I’ve seen it, I’ve witnessed it firsthand. Yet, the people are still so devoted to their national art, and culture, and you hear that in their music.

GO There’s one question I really wanted to ask you. Are you conducting the band with your hair? (laughter)

CW I’m conducting the band with everything. Everything! I conduct the band with my feet if they can see them—I stand on tip-toe. My hands, everything, whatever I can use, I try to give them cues to what I’m feeling.

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Originally published in

BOMB 67, Spring 1999

Featuring interviews with James Hyde, Mary Heilmann, Alan Warner, Scott Spencer, Catherine Gund-Saalfield, Cassandra Wilson, Revenge Effect, Elevator Repair Service, Zoe Wanamaker, and A Day in Brasilia. 

Read the issue
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