AFTER MORE THAN TWO DECADES of hustling and a series of overlapping personas—the Joni Mitchell-wannabe days of her youth, the time with avant-jazz alchemist Henry Threadgill, the experimental jazz-funk fusions with the 1980s M-BASE Collective, the commitment to the Black Rock Coalition's antiracism-in-the-music-biz drive, the major-label recasting as a mainstream diva, the follow-up sidelong plunge into hip-hop/jazz crossover—after all that and more, Cassandra Wilson became, at 40, an overnight success.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi (“As long as I've been in New York I still retain some southern values—some southern black woman values,” she drawls), Wilson grew up in a musical household. Her mother was a pop, especially Motown, fanatic; her father, a semipro musician who played trumpet, then electric bass, then guitar, was a swing-band lover with a taste for Monk and vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington and Nancy Wilson. At six, Wilson took piano lessons, then moved on to guitar—an instrument her dad started her on, that would return decades later as the epicenter of her breakthrough to jazz stardom. The instrument focused her evolving artistry in much the way that Jerry Wexler's sitting Aretha Franklin down at the piano while she sang and recorded unleashed the fullest thrusts of that singer's jazzy gospel fervor and creativity. So, too, her early tastes, typical of the times she grew up in, would reenter her field of focus in the 1990s as potential material ripe for radical redesign: the Monkees, female folksingers like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and especially Joni Mitchell.
After touring coffeehouses in the South, a stint in New Orleans, and a first marriage, Wilson found herself in New York in the early 1980s. Heavily into her bebopper phase, studying and singing Charlie Parker solos and absorbing Betty Carter's nervy model and hard-won lessons about vocal rhythmic elasticity, she landed gigs with Woody Shaw, Abbey Lincoln, Dave Holland, and Olu Dara. (In a small parallel movement, Dara, an avant-garde cornet player in the 1980s, subsequently remade himself, first as an entertainment-oriented dance-bandleader, then more