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Cassandra Wilson is Harvard’s Jazz Master in Residence

Susan Saccoccia | 4/13/2017, 6 a.m.
Renowned vocalist Cassandra Wilson settled down with Harvard’s Ingrid Monson for a conversation on Wilson’s career and development as an ...
Cassandra Wilson Photo: Jake Belcher Photography

“I’m actually a baritone,” said renowned jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson, laughing, to a small audience in an oak-paneled library on the campus of Harvard University last Wednesday. “My voice is like an iceberg. There’s a lot more under the surface.”

Drawing an audience that included students as well as long-time fans, the afternoon session, entitled “A Conversation with Cassandra Wilson,” was moderated by Ingrid Monson, Quincy Jones Professor of African American Music at Harvard. The event was part of Wilson’s stay on campus as 2017 Jazz Master in Residence. Hosted by the Office for the Arts at Harvard and Harvard Jazz Bands, Wilson visited classes, rehearsed with students and performed with the Jazz Bands Saturday night at Sanders Theatre in a public concert entitled “Women in Jazz: Celebrating Cassandra Wilson.”

Elegant and relaxed, Wilson wore a fur-trimmed hat, grey cardigan and shiny black pants. Seated in upholstered chairs, she and Monson faced each other and the audience. Wilson often shifted to the edge of her seat and leaned forward as she listened to a question, and then sat back to consider it, responding in her smoky voice — traditionally described as a contralto. With her warm give-and-take, Wilson’s conversation with Monson and the audience delivered much of the same pleasure as a musical performance.

Listening to yourself

Guiding a conversation that touched on all phases of Wilson’s career and development as an artist, Monson also played excerpts from some of the singer’s recordings, including a mesmerizing passage of Wilson’s ballad “Until.”

Speaking further about her voice, Wilson said, “I’ve never taken a vocal lesson. I learned that if you converse in a certain place, that’s where you should sing. It’s about listening to yourself, where you are, your timbre.”

Wilson, 61, might have added that for her, it’s also been about listening to where she’s been. Noting that her southern accent is more audible when she sings than when she talks, she said, “I come from Mississippi.”

Wilson’s parents were musicians and educators, and at age five she began taking classical piano lessons, and in high school learned to play the guitar.

Fertile home ground

Describing her childhood in Jackson, Mississippi, as “very sheltered,” Wilson recalled the first time she felt fear — the night that civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated, when she was 7 years old. “He lived a half-mile from us,” Wilson said. “It was the first time I realized that it was not cool out there.”

Noting that she visits her hometown often, Wilson, a two-time Grammy recipient, counts among her many awards a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail. The rich musical heritage of the Mississippi Delta and its neighboring Appalachian mountain region has been fertile ground for Wilson’s intertwined musical and personal journeys.

Pointing out that the roots of jazz extend well beyond its most heralded birthplace, New Orleans, itself a multicultural jambalaya, Wilson spoke of the dual diasporas of the poor white laborers from Ireland and the African slaves and their descendents. Both were “oppressed people,” and both were inventive in their mingling of old world and new cultural traditions. Irish step dancing in no small way influenced African American tap, and vice-versa.