Creating a new language

Cassandra WilsonVocalist and Harvard Jazz Master Cassandra Wilson talks about her work, her education, the music industry and the importance of discipline in becoming a jazz artist. 

Cherie Hu '17

Cassandra Wilson, the Grammy-winning jazz vocalist and the newly minted 2017 Jazz Master in Residence at Harvard University, feels equally at home in the past and in the future. On one hand, she pays due reverence to her predecessors: Her latest album, Coming Forth by Day, commemorates the 100th anniversary of jazz legend Billie Holiday’s birth. On the other hand, as a key protagonist in the M-Base movement alongside other jazz greats such Steve Coleman and Geri Allen, Wilson is constantly searching for innovative, globally inspired ways to reinvent rhythmic, melodic and spiritual development in her work, which blends elements of blues, country, folk and traditional African music.

Cassandra Wilson
Cassandra Wilson

Wilson will share her music and creative process with the Harvard community next month, performing as the featured guest with the Harvard Jazz Bands at Women in Jazz: Celebrating Cassandra Wilson, 8 p.m. April 8 at Sanders Theatre. Wilson will also join Ingrid Monson, professor in the Harvard music department, for a public conversation presented by Learning From Performers, 4 p.m. April 5 at Leverett House Library Theater.

I chatted with Wilson about the meaning of jazz as a way of life, the importance of female representation in the genre and the challenges of making a living as a musician in the digital age. An edited version of our conversation follows.

What excites you the most about your upcoming visit to Harvard?
I'm so excited to meet the students. What fascinates me is that they're not at Harvard just for the music; they have other interests and are studying such interesting majors, in addition to playing in bands. I'm looking forward to listening and talking to these students, and getting inside their heads. I've also been binging the music of Yosvany Terry recently. I love his spirit and energy, and the way he relates to his students. It feels simultaneously casual and really serious.

What was your music education like growing up? Did you study music in college?
I started studying music formally when I was 5 years old, taking classical piano lessons for seven years. I then taught myself guitar, and played clarinet and flute in various marching and concert bands in high school. So, even before attending university, there was quite a bit of music in my life. The first college I attended was Millsaps College, where I majored in philosophy and theater arts, but I dropped out during my junior year to go on the road and start making music more professionally for the first time. I eventually went back to college to finish my degree, because I was always an academic at heart. My mother was an academic herself: She taught elementary education for 30 years and got her PhD in education, then taught out of Jackson State University for seven years. I ultimately got my bachelor's degree in mass communications from Jackson State, in addition to a minor in music.

Considering the title Women in Jazz, how do you understand the importance of female representation in jazz today?
I don't think so much about being a woman in jazz myself, because that can sometimes get in the way of how you carry yourself. I do have very strong feelings about the importance of including women in jazz, because music needs to be balanced and feature both feminine and masculine energies. It's part of what we're going through as a larger society, in terms of realizing the importance of all of us working together collectively, and learning how to value each other.

How about the music industry in general? It seems more and more difficult to make a sustainable living in music today. How are you negotiating this challenge in your career?
The industry's old models are dead, but music itself never dies. We just find different ways of getting it out there. Look at Chance the Rapper. He's not signed to anybody. He just gives his music away for free. I think that's such a beautiful model for musicians, in that it shows the power of reaching out to your audience directly, rather than selling your artistry through a middleman, like the industry has done for the past century. I don't really touch streaming. I don't see why I should rely on services like Spotify or Pandora that use their own algorithms to evaluate my music and send it to all these crazy places that don't have anything to do with me or my art, when my music feels very personal to me. If you want to stream, I think you should go directly to the artist. It's so easy to start your own radio stations nowadays. For instance, I have my own station, ReallyCassandra Radio, which has no ads or subliminal messaging – just plain music and direct connection to listeners, which we need more of today.

Your music is influenced by a variety of genres, including but not limited to blues, country and folk. How does this hybrid approach fit into the wider umbrella term of jazz?
Reinvention is intrinsic to the meaning of jazz. The genre has always craved innovation and unique voices. The whole approach behind M-Base – which is more of a concept, and not a "secret society" like many people make it out to be – is to access the past and give due reverence and deference to your elders and ancestors, while also incorporating the music of your time and lending your own voice to the craft.

You once said in an interview that jazz is a discipline, not just a genre. What exactly do you mean by that?
The discipline is the most important part of jazz, and it's precisely that approach of constantly reinventing new ways of tapping into the collective unconsciousness. It's not enough just to play inside of the genre per se, or to imitate what the masters have done. Yes, every jazz artist goes through a crucial phase where they are imitating others who came before them, but the main thrust of what jazz artists do is creating a new language. If you don't have that discipline, you're not really functioning as a jazz artist.

Support for Cassandra Wilson's residency provided by the Bernard H. and Mildred Kayden Artist in Residence Fund and the Richard J. Scheuer, Jr. Fund through Learning From Performers, a program of the Office for the Arts at Harvard.