Nancy Wilson: Turns to Blue
Reminiscing is the svelte, statuesque (5' 8 ½ ) and still stunning, deeply brown-eyed Nancy Wilson, three-time Grammy winner, most recently for Best Jazz Vocal Album, Turned To Blue (MCG Jazz). Arguably the most glamorous story-telling song stylist grandma since Marlene Dietrich, this month she's celebrating her seventieth birthday in concert at Carnegie Hall, and then again later this summer at the Hollywood Bowl.
Born in Chillicothe, Ohio, Wilson grew up in Columbus, where her father's providing early exposure to the likes of Billy Eckstine, Louis Jordan, Ruth Brown and Bullmoose Jackson's "I Want a Bowlegged Woman nurtured what evolved into Wilson's keen, clarion blend of gospel, blues, jazz and R&B. Mention Jimmy Scott, whom she first heard when only ten and she flatly declares, "I still sound like Jimmy Scott.
A professional singer at fifteen, she began performing in clubs in the Columbus area. After graduating high school she enrolled in college to become a teacher. In 1956, her desire to sing won out and she left to join The Rusty Bryant Band. Bryant had been pursuing her to sing with his band ever since she'd sat in with them on her high school prom night. She recalls, "He was at my father's house the next morning asking me to go on the road with him, which I did not do. I went to college first and then I joined the band. ...We had the best band! "
Even more importantly, it was through Bryant that she made one of the greatest connections of her career. "Rusty Bryant introduced me to Cannonball and Nat [Adderley] at the corner of 52nd Street and Broadway in New York. That was when they had first come up from Florida and things weren't happening with them. John Levy was managing them and so they decided Nat was going to go out with Lionel Hampton and Cannon would go with Miles [Davis].
"The next time I met Cannon he was with Miles at a club in Columbus, Marty's 502. Everybody knew I was in no rush to get to New York, but Cannon knew that I wanted to get with John Levy [He eventually became her longtime manager]. Cannon said, 'When you're ready, give me a call.'
Asked how she knew just when she was "ready, Wilson's reply is as characteristically straight-ahead as is her singing. "Well, I have always known 'the gift' was just that. I had enough strength and belief in this god to know he was kind. He did not give me the gift of the lyric to make that a sin [to sing secular music]. ...It was like OK, I know this is a gift and I want to use it wisely, but I didn't see a lot of happiness in show business. I was in no rush.
Warming to memories of Adderley, Wilson says, "Well aside from the friendship, the family thing that we had. From the stage he taught me more without saying it, without being a professor. People walked away from his performances with an absolute understanding of what he did. He didn't tell you 'this is what we're doing with this bar' or anything. He taught with his music. I was discussing this with some of his wonderful musicians. They all felt the same way. Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley taught from the floor. Phil Woods is another who does that and feels that way about Cannon, and the drummer Roy McCurdy, he's been with me 27 years, was with Cannonball. So Cannon is still onstage with me every night.
In 1961, they recorded the now-classic Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley (Capitol). Drummer Louis Hayes remembers, "You know, with some recording sessions that you do there are problems. We didn't have that with this group. Everything was very upbeat. Everybody felt like it was a winner. He beams when speaking about Wilson. "She has such a wonderful voice.
"And her personality and presence are so phenomenal, Hayes continues. "She really can communicate with an audience. She can sell herself and her song on a very high level. Naturally, coming from her backgroundthe Dinah Washington era and Jimmy Scottit's soul, but very modern. Very high level, modern sound. She could take that sound and move on from Dinah to now. And Gerald Wilson, who as trumpeter and bandleader worked with her frequently, raves, "She could sing anything. Up-tempo, the blues, she could do everything.
Among her many dozens of albums, Lush Life (Blue Note, 1967), with Billy May remains, "my favorite of all the albums I've done, says Wilson. She cherishes a note May wrote to her afterwards saying how grateful he was that, "God had seen fit to put me here to do this.
Wilson's regard for fellow musicians suffuses any discussion of her work. She says simply, "They lead me. Rhapsodizing about tenor saxophonist Ben Webster's tonal quality and deep, rich sound, she says, "The thing I liked ... the greatest of the horn players were those who knew the lyrics to the songs. And you can tell the difference. I can hear it in some guitar players because they are playing the lyrics. To me that makes all the difference. No surprise that, from one so notable for the crisp, honeyed warmth she's always lavished on lyrics, from her aching delivery of "All Night Long to her sassy rendition of "Face It Girl, It's Over.
One of her guitarists, Gene Bertoncini, raves about another classic Capitol recording, But Beautiful (1969). "It was a great thrill to walk into [the session] and see Ron [Carter] and Grady [Tate] and Hank [Jones]. I knew them all, but it was the first time we worked together. And Nancy. It was a thrill to hear her come into my earphones, she was singing so great.
Bertoncini makes an interesting observation about this singer, whose record-selling numbers were right up there with Frank Sinatra's. "I think Nancy Wilson is the most underrated singer in the universe. She is a star, no question about it. But she should be like the real major singers, the giants like Ella [Fitzgerald] and Sarah [Vaughan]. Nancy should have been right up there. I've been on a lotta albums with a lotta singers and I've probably appeared on a thousand albums for various reasons. But Nancy's is the album I always tell people to get. ...I'm extremely proud of being a part of that.
A mention of one of Wilson's signature songs, her debut single "Guess Who I Saw Today, turns conversation with her to other singers. She remembers talking about that song with Carmen McRae, whose memorable earlier version Wilson first listened to when she was fifteen. Revealing an acute talent for mimicry, Wilson suddenly conjures McRae's voice to remark drolly, "There was no doubt in my mind where you heard it. I knew you didn't hear it from Eydie Gorme. A recollection which evokes a huge laugh from Wilson.
Her sense of sisterhood with "all the ladies is evident, as she reminisces fondly about Ella, Sarah and Dinah Washington gifting her with her first pair of jeweled shoes. It carries over to an enthusiastic interest in her fellow Grammy nominees from last year. "Roberta Gambarini I know because she does things with the Dizzy [Gillespie] band. And Nancy King, Lew Matthews, my conductor knows her.
Awards and honorary doctorates continue to accumulate. Wilson's musical knowledge and relationships with musicians have, since 1995, made her the perfect host for National Public Radio's Jazz Profiles series. For nearly a decade she's been associated with MCG Jazz, a record company and social enterprise supporting youth education programs, which fits perfectly with Wilson's longstanding involvement in social issues, including HIV/AIDS. In a sudden, impassioned outburst Wilson says, "...and this homophobic crap has got to stop, when speaking about how members of the black and Latino communities need to come forward and deal with relevant issues.
Though she's no longer touring, her concert schedule remains busy and Wilson is definitely not retiring. A follow-up to her latest Grammy-winner is already in the works as she searches for new songs. Wilson relishes working with big bands and promises, "I want the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band to do at least one or two tunes on each CD I do. They lift the spirit of the album up. We just have a ball.
Her love of music making undiminished, she practically sings her comment as she raves, "What's going on is some of the younger musicians are rearranging some of the tunes. There's a different take and some of the charts are just -----ooooh. And Gerald Wilson! Puleeeeeeeeze. I mean I have no words!
Nancy Wilson, Turned to Blue (MCG Jazz, 2006)
Nancy Wilson/The Great Jazz Trio, What's New (Eastworld, 1982)
Nancy Wilson, But Beautiful (Blue Note, 1969)
Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley, Nancy Wilson & Cannonball Adderley (Capitol, 1961)
Nancy Wilson, The Essence of Nancy Wilson: Four Decades of Music (Capitol, 1960-83)
George Shearing/Nancy Wilson, The Swingin's Mutual (Capitol, 1961)