Genre Peace

The Jazz Stasi sets its sights on Cassandra Wilson.

Illustration by Joe Ciardiello

Shhh! Stop having so much fun. The jazz court is in session, and its latest perp is the jazz singer Cassandra Wilson. In a recent New York magazine, critic David Yaffe admits that Wilson “can do anything she wants with a song: she can caress with a syllable, she can seduce with a phrase.” But, he adds somberly, her new album, Belly of the Sun (Blue Note), “is not a jazz album” because of “its James Taylor and Bob Dylan covers, its folk-rock arrangements, and its tendency to indulge in multiple grooves.” The crime: Jazz’s “most gifted singer has avoided jazz itself.” His ruling upheld a verdict last March by the New York Times, in which Adam Shatz observed that, over the past decade, “Ms. Wilson … has shown less and less interest in anything that resembles jazz.” Shatz acknowledged her “sumptuous” voice, which, he said, “ought to be studied by every aspiring jazz singer.” Nonetheless, he sniffed, Ms. Wilson has “become a ‘crossover’ singer.” The defendant is guilty of treason.

I happen to be among the many who consider Cassandra Wilson a godsend of modern jazz singing—the queen of smoke and silk, bristling with blues, swing, authority, and wit. I also think Belly of the Sun is one of her best albums, the fulfillment of the exuberantly turf-transcending sound she’s been grappling with since the mid-’90s. But that’s not the point here. The point is that in their rush to uphold the jazz tradition, these critics distort what that tradition is about.

The false premise here is the implicit definition of a jazz singer as someone who sings or plays “jazz standards.” But what is a jazz standard? With very few exceptions, it’s a pop tune that a jazz musician has transformed or sometimes just improved upon. One of the most durable jazz standards of all time is “Body and Soul,” dating from Coleman Hawkins’ recording in 1939. But originally it was a tune from the 1930 Broadway show Three’s a Crowd. “My Funny Valentine” was a pop tune from the 1937 show Babes in Arms before Miles Davis turned it into a jazz standard in 1956. (Thirty years later, Miles also turned Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” into great jazz standards.) The most notorious case, of course, is “My Favorite Things,” which was one of the most banal songs on that banal soundtrack The Sound of Music until John Coltrane mixed it with raga rhythms. The list goes on: Pianist Bill Evans, the quintessential balladeer of jazz standards, worked Paul Simon’s “I Do It for Your Love” into his repertoire—and not to make money, but because he liked it. The arranger Gil Evans put out an album of Jimi Hendrix covers. In short, jazz musicians have always explored fusions with other genres.

Some critics get leery these days when a good jazz musician goes this route because they remember the deadly jazz-rock “fusion” of the ‘70s. But much of that fusion was terrible because it was pandering, sloppy, and monotonous—not because it tried to rock. True, pre-rock pop tunes often featured more elaborate chord changes than current ones do, giving jazz musicians a forum for their harmonic improvisations. However, not all old songs were sophisticated, nor are all new songs simplistic. More to the point, jazz stopped depending on chord changes back in 1959 with the modal revolution of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue.

Jazz is, and always has been, a constant swirl of innovation and tradition; it’s at once a complex and motley music that swipes from, and grafts itself onto, a boundless variety of musical genres—whatever’s wafting through the air. Some of the most compelling jazz musicians these days are exploring fusions with music from around the world. And sometimes, as their elders did, they draw on the pop tunes they hear on the radio. Trumpeter Dave Douglas, maybe the most astonishingly versatile young jazz composer, plays Rufus Wainwright’s ” Poses” on his new album The Infinite, and it sounds no less fitting than the disc’s more “standard” numbers. In the past, he’s also swung through Joni Mitchell’s ” My Old Man,” Burt Bacharach’s ” Wives and Lovers,” and the ” Theme From Goldfinger.” Clarinetist Don Byron persuasively jazzed the Four Tops’ ” I’ll Be There.” And Cassandra Wilson, on her new disc, sings piercing renditions of Jimmy Webb’s ” Wichita Lineman” and Robbie Robertson’s ” The Weight,” as well as the old-reliable “Darkness on the Delta,” just as, on earlier albums, she magically covered the Monkees’ ” Last Train to Clarksville” as well as Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark.” It’s one thing to like or dislike these covers. It’s just silly to say they’re not jazz. The late great trumpeter Lester Bowie had it right as far back as 1968 when, on a wild album called Congliptious, he asked, “Is jazz as we know it dead?”—then slyly answered, “That all depends on what you know, heh, heh, heh.”