Cassandra Wilson was born December 4, 1955 in Jackson, Mississippi, the youngest child of guitarist, bassist and educator Herman Fowlkes, Jr. and between her parent’s love of Motown and jazz, her early interest in music was ignited.
Wilson’s earliest formal musical education consisted of classical lessons, studying piano from age of six to thirteen and playing clarinet in the middle school concert and marching bands. She then took what she calls an “intuitive” approach to learning to play the guitar and began writing songs and adopting a folk style. While in college she spent nights working with R&B, funk and pop cover bands and singing in local coffeehouses. But it wasn’t until her association with The Black Arts Music Society that she got her first opportunity to sing bebop.
By 1981 Cassandra was working television public affairs in New Orleans but the pull towards jazz was strong and began working with mentors Earl Turbinton, Alvin Batiste and Ellis Marsalis. With their encouragement she moved to New York to seriously pursue jazz singing the following year. There her focus turned towards improvisation, heavily influenced by Abbey Lincoln and Betty Carter. She fine-tuned her vocal phrasing and scat while studying ear training with trombonist Grachan Moncur III and frequenting jam sessions under the tutelage of pianist Sadik Hakim.
A meet with altoist Steve Coleman reinforced Wilson to look beyond the jazz repertoire in favor of composing original music. This led her to become the vocalist and one of the founding members of the M-Base Collective in which Coleman was the leading figure, a stylistic outgrowth of the early-formed Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and Black Artists Group.
Cassandra recorded her first project as a leader “Point of View” in 1986 utilizing M-Base members Coleman, Jean-Paul Bourelly and James Weidman. As subsequent albums followed she would develop a remarkable ability to stretch and bend pitches, elongate syllables, manipulate tone and timbre from dusky to hollow. She would receive broad critical acclaim for “Blue Skies” that would eventually lead to her signing with Blue Note.
She has effectively reconnected vocal jazz with its blues roots, but is arguably the first to convincingly fashion post-British Invasion pop into jazz, trailblazing a path that many have since followed. Wilson was a featured vocalist with Wynton Marsalis’ Pulitzer Prize winning composition “Blood On The Fields”, paid tribute to her greatest influence Miles Davis with “Traveling Miles”.
Cassandra has been a side- woman and guest vocalist on numerous recordings of such jazz luminaries as Terence Blanchard, Regina Carter, Don Byron, Jacky Terrasson, Charlie Haden, David Murray and Teri Lynne Carrington among others. She has performed on 13 soundtracks, featured singer in two movies, has received an honorary doctorate from Millsaps College, been named America’s Best Singer by Time Magazine and has won two Grammy Awards.
Contralto Cassandra Wilson has an unmistakable timbre and approach as she is expanding the playing field by incorporating country, blues and folk with jazz while continuing to perform, tour and record.
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Flower Drum Song opens the curtains of the St. James Theatre on December 1, 1958 and runs for 600 performances. The music composed by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein for actors Pat Suzuki, Juanita Hall, Miyoshi Umeki, Larry Blyden, Jack Soo, Arabella Hong, Ed Kenney and Keye Luke leave the world with the jazz classic Love, Look Away.
The Story: Wang Chi-yang, a wealthy 63-year-old man Chinese refugee lives in San Francisco’s Chinatown with his two sons. He has a cough, which symbolizes his authority and his resistance to American culture and refusal to adopt Western ways. He is also at odds with his sister-in-law and his sons who are assimilating. Older son Wang Ta woos nightclub dancer Linda, but discovering she has many men dumps her. Linda’s seamstress friend Helen cannot find a man and gets Ta drunk, seduces him, has a short-lived affair. Ta eventually abandons her and then she commits suicide.
Impatient at Ta’s inability to find a wife, Wang arranges a marriage for his son. However, before she arrives, Ta meets a young woman, May Li, and with his father’s approval he and May Li fall in love. He vows to marry her after she is falsely accused of stealing a clock. Wang struggles to understand the conflicts that have torn his household apart; his hostility toward assimilation is isolating him from his family. In the end Wang decides to go to a Chinese-run Western clinic, symbolizing that he is beginning to accept American culture.
Jazz History: Hard bop, an extension of bebop or “bop” music that incorporates influences from rhythm and blues, gospel and blues especially in the saxophone and piano playing. Hard bop was developed in the mid-1950s, partly in response to the vogue for cool jazz in the early 1950s. The hard bop style coalesced in 1953 and 1954, paralleling the rise of rhythm and blues. Miles Davis’ performance of “Walkin” the title track of his album of the same year, at the very first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, announced the style to the jazz world. The quintet Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers fronted by Blakey featured pianist Horace Silver and trumpeter Clifford Brown, who were leaders in the hard bop movement along with Davis.
West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on September 26, 1957. Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein composed and wrote the score for the musical that ran 732 performances. Larry Kert, Carol Lawrence, Chita Rivera, Mickey Cain and Ken Leroy were the stars of the show that gave the jazz world such classics as Somewhere, I Feel Pretty, Tonight, Maria and Cool.
The Story: On the streets of West Side Manhattan in the late summer of 1957, there is mounting racial tension between rival white American and Puerto Rican gangs to maintain control of the neighborhood – the Jets and the Sharks. An interracial relationship blossoms between Tony and Maria who see past their ethnic differences. However, Maria’s brother Bernardo and leader of the Sharks does not want this love-match to succeed. Destined to be short-lived, a rumble between the two gangs ensues, Maria begs Tony to stop it, the fight escalates from lists to knives and Tony ultimately kills Bernardo.
When Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita learns of his death she is overcome with emotion and seeking out Maria, who already knows, discovers Tony is with her. Tony leaves for refuge at Doc’s drugstore after which they learn that Chino was seeking revenge for Bernardo by shooting Tony. Maria begs Anita to go tell Tony but after a mock rape at the hands of the Jets, Anita delivers a different message – that Maria is dead. In shock Tony runs out screaming for Chino to come kill him. On the playground Tony and Maria see each other but before they can embrace Chino shoots and kills Tony.
Broadway History: The Off-Off-Broadway movement began in 1958 as a reaction to Off-Broadway, and a “complete rejection of commercial theatre”. Among the first venues for what would soon be called “Off-Off-Broadway” were coffeehouses in Greenwich Village, particularly the Caffe Cino at 31 Cornelia Street, operated by the eccentric Joe Cino, who early on took a liking to actors and playwrights and agreed to let them stage plays there without bothering to read the plays first, or to even find out much about the content. Also integral to the rise of Off-Off-Broadway were Ella Stewart at La MaMa and Al Carmines at the Judson Poets’ Theater, located at Judson Memorial Church, Playbox Studio, New York Theatre Ensemble, The Old Reliable, The Dove Company and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe.
Gloria Lynne was born Gloria Wilson on November 23, 1931 in New York City and grew up in Harlem. Her professional career began in 1951 after winning first prize at the “Amateur Night” at the Apollo Theater. She shared the stage with contemporary nightclub vocal ensembles as well as with Ella Fitzgerald. During the Fifties she recorded as part of such groups as The Enchanters, The Del Tones and recording as a soloist under her birth name. However, most of her work was released under her stage name on both Everest and Fontana record labels.
Gloria showed much promise early on, especially after TV appearances, including the Harry Belafonte Spectacular, but her development suffered through poor management, some unscrupulous recording executives who profited while she was left virtually penniless, saved only by the fact that she was able to work steadily and earn her money from performance.
Throughout the 1960s she had several hits including “June Night”, “Love I Found You,” and “I Wish You Love” in 1964 that became a big hit and her signature song, “I’m Glad There Is You” and a pop tune “(You don’t have to be a) Tower Of Strength” that proved her versatility. Lynne went on to record such albums as “Soul Serenade”, “Love And A Woman”, “Where It’s At”, and “Here, There And Everywhere” all of which showcased her versatility in jazz, R&B, soul and melodic “pop”.
During her earlier years on-the-road she shared bills with Ray Charles, Billy Eckstine, Johnny Mathis, Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Belafonte. As Lynne moved into jazz in her later career she worked with top-flight musicians and arrangers and performed with many of the jazz greats, including Quincy Jones, Bobby Timmons, Philly Joe Jones and Harry “Sweets” Edison. She penned lyrics with Herbie Hancock for his “Watermelon Man” and “All Day Long” with Kenny Burrell.
She has been inducted into the National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame, honored with a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, with Gloria Lynne Day in New York City, received the National Heritage Award, the Prestigious Eagle Award and Outstanding Achievement In Jazz at the New York MAC Awards.
Vocalist Gloria Lynne continued to record, perform and write until passing away on October 15, 2013 at age 83 in Newark, New Jersey.
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June Christy, born Shirley Luster on November 20, 1925 in Springfield, Illinois but grew up in Decatur, Illinois from the age of three. She began singing at 13 with the Decatur-based Bill Oetzel Orchestra continuing through high school and adding appearances with the Ben Bradley Band, and Bill Madden’s Band. Graduating she moved to Chicago, changed her name to Sharon Leslie, sang with the Boyd Raeburn group, then joined Benny Strong’s band and in 1944, with Strong’s band moved to New York.
In 1945, after hearing that Anita O’Day had left Stan Kenton’s Orchestra, she auditioned and got the role as a vocalist and her success was on the rise. She actually bore a heavy vocal and physical resemblance to Anita O’Day and it was during this time, she changed her name once again, finally becoming June Christy. I
n 1947 June started working on her own records with arranger and bandleader Pete Rugolo that produced her debut “Something Cool” in 1954 with husband Bob Cooper and Bud Shank. This album was instrumental in launching the vocal cool movement of the fifties. Throughout the decade she had a string of hits like Something Cool, Midnight Sun and I Should Care as she continued to release records, such as, “The Misty Miss Christy” that would set new standards for the music and influence future jazz vocalists.
During the 50s and 60s, Christy appeared on the top television programs of the day including Eddie Condon’s Floor Show, The Alan Young Show, The Jack Carter Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Tonight Show, The Nat King Cole Show, The Steve Allen Show, Playboy’s Penthouse, The Mike Douglas Show and The Joey Bishop Show. She embarked on dozens of concert tours throughout the U.S. and in Europe, South Africa and Japan.
June retired from the music business in 1969, only to take the stage again in financial crisis. In 1972, June sang at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York and reunited on stage with the Stan Kenton Orchestra. She recorded her final album “Impromptu” in 1977 but continued to perform at a few festivals over the next two decades with her final performance sharing the stage with Chet Baker in 1988. After struggling with illness for many years, vocalist June Christy passed away at her home in Sherman Oaks, California of kidney failure on June 21, 1990. She was 64.
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