A crossover artist capable of covering everything from British pop to American country in her earthy contralto, jazz vocalist and composer Cassandra Wilson transcends any one musical genre. Time magazine hailed her as "America's Best Singer" in 2001 - and the accolade doesn't overstate her talent. Over the course of her nearly 30-year career, this Festival favourite has continued to evolve her art form, deftly reinventing jazz repertoire with a light touch, steadfast vision and intimate delivery.
Cassandra Wilson was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1955, the third and youngest child of guitarist, bassist and music teacher Herman Fowlkes Jr. and elementary school teacher Mary McDaniel. Her father's enthusiasm for jazz and her mother's love of Motown sparked her interest in music. As a child, she studied piano, clarinet and guitar, and appeared in school productions.
While earning a degree in mass communications at Millsaps College and Jackson State University, Wilson performed in local coffeehouses and jazz clubs on the side. First heading to New Orleans in 1981, she moved north to New York the following year.
Wilson soon became the main vocalist for the M-Base Collective, an improvisational jazz ensemble, and began working with avant-garde trio New Air. In 1985, after signing with the independent label JMT, she recorded her first album as a leader, Point of View, for which she composed two songs.
In 1988, the songstress released Blue Skies, which, for the first time, featured a trio rather than her M-Base collaborators and covered a series of straightforward jazz standards. The album won her critical acclaim and was a turning point in the artist's career. Two years later, she made her debut at the Festival, appearing at the intimate Théâtre du Nouveau Monde.
In 1993, Wilson signed with Blue Note and released Blue Light 'Til Dawn, an ambitious album of covers that took on the visceral blues of Robert Johnson and the intimate folk-rock of Joni Mitchell. The following year, she triumphantly returned to the Festival and made another visit in 1995 to perform a concert at intimate venue Le Spectrum.
The same year, the sought-after vocalist released New Moon Daughter, an album that built on her already imaginative repertoire with covers of ebullient 1960s pop group The Monkees and charismatic country crooner Hank Williams, earning Wilson a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance.
Two years later, she took a starring role in jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis' Pulitzer Prize-winning production Blood in the Fields, which tells the story of two African slaves in the United States.
The singer embarked on a musical journey of another sort with Traveling Miles (1999), a tribute album to Miles Davis that also included three original tracks. Wilson came to the Festival that same year - and was, quite fittingly, presented with the Miles Davis Award - performing an effervescent set alongside trumpeter Olu Dara, bassist Dave Holland, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and violinist Regina Carter.
Her follow-up, Belly of the Sun, came out in 2002. Recorded in her home state of Mississippi, the album brings local musicians into the mix and imbues a warm, earthy sound, drawing on Delta blues, country, soul, roots and rock. Two years prior, the artist founded Ojah Media Group, a record label dedicated to promoting Mississippi talent.
In 2003, Wilson released Glamoured, half of which she composed and the other half of which she covered work by Sting, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan. Five years later, she made her sixth visit to the Festival to the delight of fans. In 2008, she revisited her breakout recording Blue Skies with another collection of American songbook standards entitled Loverly, winning the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album.