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Cassandra Wilson on the path that led her to the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters ceremony

Cassandra Wilson
Jonathan Chimene
Cassandra Wilson onstage at the 2015 Newport Jazz Festival.

The National Endowment for the Arts will inaugurate four new NEA Jazz Masters on Thursday night, bestowing this nation’s highest honor for living jazz musicians. We’re celebrating the new class of honorees this week — beginning with singer, songwriter, and two-time Grammy-winner Cassandra Wilson.

Once again, there's this feeling that there's something else beyond the kitchen and ironing the clothes. There's a feeling that maybe I don't fit so much inside of a political family, because that requires a certain kind of a composure that I don't really have. (You know, I do have a tendency to speak my mind from time to time.) So there's a feeling that maybe I don't fit into that lifestyle. Maybe I actually fit with the jazz musicians. So that's in the back of my head.
Cassandra Wilson

Wilson is one of the preeminent jazz vocalists of the last 30 years, with a deep, dark timbre that calls to mind a barrel-aged bourbon, or a plume of applewood smoke. Recognizable within an instant, her sound once prompted TIME Magazine to anoint her “America’s Best Singer,” back in 2001. But Wilson took a circuitous path to a career in music, as she told the NEA. At one point, she was living with her first husband in New Orleans — working by day at a TV station and making the musical rounds at night. She began to realize her calling.

Wilson moved to New York City in the early 1980s, falling into a scene that included saxophonist Steve Coleman. She was a part of his vanguardist M-BASE coalition, but it was through a different association that her music found its truest spark, after she became a Blue Note Records artist.

The albums that Wilson made with producer Craig Street, Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and New Moon Daughter, were commercial and critical successes, and creative touchstones for a generation of younger artists, like Norah Jones. Among their revelations is that idea that a jazz singer could seamlessly incorporate Delta blues, Laurel Canyon folk, and even the likes of The Monkees.

Last Train To Clarksville

Jazz Night in America will celebrate each of the 2022 NEA Jazz Masters in the coming weeks — beginning with an episode devoted to Cassandra Wilson.

Listen to the NEA Jazz Masters ceremony this Thursday, at 10:30 p.m. Eastern Time, on WBGO 88.3 FM and at wbgo.org. And stay tuned for more mini-profiles of the honorees here at The Art of the Story from WBGO News.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.