NANCY WILSON / “Nancy Wilson Mixtape”
I once rode 40 or so miles through the Minnesota snow on a bus by my young 17-year-old self to see Ms. Nancy Wilson and I was some glad I did. It wasn’t my first time seeing her and definitely wasn’t the last but it was a wonderful occasion. I was at a college that had 11 black students out of approximately 1200—and eight of us were first-year students. This was the late fall of 1964.
Nancy warmed me up emotionally, helped me withstand the culture and temperature shock, helped me hold on for another four or five months, and for that I am very thankful.
When I first saw Nancy Wilson she was with the Cannonball Adderley Sextet—Charles Lloyd had recently joined the band. That was in New Orleans. Instead of the straight ahead jazz she did with Cannonball, at the St. Paul show I witnessed Nancy do the music from a then new solo show that was immortalized in a recording appropriately called The Nancy Wilson Show.
Man, you should have seen my joy when that recording was released, and you should have seen my sadness when that same recording went out of print. Of course I had and kept the vinyl for quite a number of years but between moving from time to time and what not, I eventually lost, misplaced, was relieved of the recording. And though I would check from time to time, Capitol did not reissue that one for a long, long minute.
Which brings me to the reasoning behind this Nancy Wilson Mixtape. It’s Nancy in a jazz mode including all the vocal tracks from the uber-classic Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley recording, a recording that not too long ago was a litmus test for whether you were a real, for sho nuff jazz collector. That Capitol let that particular album go out of print while re-issuing bunches of lesser albums by Nancy, well, what more evidence do we need that the entertainment industry considers jazz as bastard music to be exploited but not preserved, not to mention revered.
When I was still a bit naïve about the nature of capitalism—I used to think that race defined the deficiencies in the American body politic, but that’s another story for another time—it never entered my mind that there was a deeper reasoning behind why jazz was pushed to the margins of cultural life in the land of its birth. The deeper reason has two aspects: money and politics.
Not only was the post bebop buying audience relatively small for jazz, worse yet from the industry standpoint, jazz was too unpredictable. And beyond unpredictable, too many of these guys (and the women too) were becoming more and more political. They even started putting overt politics in the music, giving African names to their compositions, openly challenging the system, even making speeches from the bandstand. Naw, no way the mainstream was going to promote that.
Think on this: Nina Simone was on the scene a bit before Nancy but even Nina started off singing super club love songs. Hell, Nina’s initial hit was her entrancing version of “I Loves You Porgy.” So what the industry did is do what they always do—co-opt, cover, convert or crush those who refuse the first three “C’s.”
So, like Gloria Lynn, Terri Thornton, Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, and so many others who preceded her, Nancy was given an offer that was hard to refuse (don’t think the Godfather was just a movie). Nancy was offered Las Vegas, super clubs, all she had to do was focus on singing standards, ditch that jazz shit.
I know they weren't so crass as to say it straight out like that to Nancy, but there are ways to curse your ass out using euphemisms and pretty sounding words. The industry had the art of deception down pat.
E.g. We’ll still call it jazz but stick with Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood and, please, whatever your repertoire—you can even do some pop, Country&Western, a little R&B but contemporary jazz of the sixties and seventies… well, Nancy you know you have such a beautiful voice, and the way you manage a well-written melody, and the dignified way you carry yourself, and the stylish way you dress… and you’re such an attractive lady, and we can offer you fees commensurate with your talent, and you can avoid all the low-lifes and drug-heads… and on and on.
And, of course, like I said, it was probably never said directly like that, but there are ways of making the abandonment of jazz attractive. You know there’s a reason why Nancy made it big in America and Abbey Lincoln didn’t.
But to get back to this week’s honoree, Nancy Wilson was a stellar jazz artist even though the bulk of her recordings was not straight jazz.
Not only did she have one of the most beautiful voices, her voice had a distinctive personality—usually within the first two or three bars you could be sure that the vocalist was Nancy.
I liked the subtle touches in her phrasing, the slight lagging behind the beat, which she undoubted got from Billie. When she sang jazz her use of dynamics was superb, seldom did she over-sing. Unfortunately, the jazz records are but a handful—and one of them, Echoes of an Era 2 (1982), is still out of print.
So, here is Nancy Wilson, the jazz vocalist. Enjoy. Enjoy. Enjoy.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
Nancy Wilson Mixtape Playlist
I have not forgotten about the albums Nancy did with Ramsey Lewis beginning in 1984, nor am I overlooking the two Grammy winning (best jazz vocalist) albums: R.S.V.P. (Rare Songs, Very Personal) (2004) and Turned To Blue (2006). I’m choosing mostly early work and one Japanese recording, What’s New, that has not been released in the USA.
What's New Nancy Wilson with The Great Jazz Trio (1982)
On What’s New, Nancy is accompanied by the Great Jazz Trio: Hank Jones on piano, Eddie Gomez on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Other than the Cannonball classic, I think this is her strongest jazz recording mainly because the trio is outstanding in both supporting and encouraging Ms. Wilson. A much earlier recording with George Shearing strikes me as jazz lite; it’s attractive but lackluster compared to these recordings.
01 “What's New”
02 “It Never Entered My Mind”
03 “Don't Explain”
The Nancy Wilson Show! (1965)
The Nancy Wilson Show! is a 1965 recording that features Nancy with one foot in the jazz world and another headed toward Vegas and supper club heaven.
04 “Guess Who I Saw Today”
05 “Saga Of Bill Bailey”
06 “You Can Have Him”
But Beautiful (1969)
But Beautiful is at times stunning in its lyricism. That’s Hank Jones on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Grady Tate on drums, and Gene Bertoncini on guitar.
07 “But Beautiful”
08 “Darn That Dream”
09 “For Heaven's Sake”
10 “In A Sentimental Mood”
11 “I Thought About You”
Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley (1962)
In the liner notes Nancy Wilson aptly sums up this seminal recording: “…we wanted it to be spontaneous and relaxed. …we wanted a happy, romping sound. It would be Cannonball’s quintet with me fitting in as assort of easy-going third horn on some nice songs that haven’t already been ‘heard to death’ on records.”
The band line up is Cannonball on alto, his brother Nat on cornet, Joe Zawinul on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums.
12 “Happy Talk”
13 “The Old Country”
14 “Never Will I Marry”
15 “The Masquerade Is Over”
16 “A Sleeping Bee”
17 “Save Your Love For Me”
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