During the warm summer days of her childhood, jazz singer Cassandra Wilson and her friends would often roam the streets of Jackson’s Shady Oaks neighborhood barefoot from 9 a.m. until the street lights turned on in the evening. Among their pastimes was gathering in groups to hold competitions to determine who could come up with the most original songs.
“We were essentially free-range children with a strong connection to nature,” the Jackson native artist says. “Back then our streets were so much safer, and there were so many children out on those streets running free with no worries about getting in trouble.”
Wilson eventually transitioned from watching her father, musician Herman Fowlkes Jr., play guitar to picking up the instrument herself when she was 12 years old. The first she ever held as a toddler was her father’s archtop Gibson, a six-stringed guitar with a hollow body and arched top and back popular with jazz musicians. When she started playing the instrument at 12, she used a Goya classical guitar.
“I remember the way the notes that guitar made overlapped with each other, and the high harmonics it produced,” Wilson says in an interview with the Mississippi Free Press. “I thought those strings had an angelic quality to them whenever we played together.”
Today, Wilson is a Mississippi jazz icon with two Grammys as well as an Edison Music Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship, a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail and more. She also played a lead role in jazz musician Wynton Marsalis‘ oratorio “Blood on the Fields,” which became the first jazz work to receive a Pulitzer Prize.
In honor of Wilson’s musical contributions to her home city, Jackson restaurateur and promoter Malcolm White, organizer of the city’s annual Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade & Festival, has named Wilson as this year’s grand marshal. The theme for the 2023 event is “40 Years and All That Jazz.” The parade, Wilson says, represents a chance for the people of Jackson to celebrate after what she describes as three years of hardship for the capital city due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other issues.
“Simply as a human being I’ve felt the hardships Jackson has been under as much as anyone, and the melancholy and sadness it brought,” Wilson says. “I believe the whole point of having celebrations like this is to uplift the mood in the community and bring everyone together to celebrate our unity and our diversity.”
“Emotions are what the world moves on, so uplifting people’s spirits is always a good thing,” she adds. “I also see the kind of music I make as having a spiritual component, where the frequencies can serve to heal the mind and body alike.”
‘An Old Dear Friend of Mine’
Malcolm White, who formerly served as executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, organized the first incarnation of the parade on March 17, 1983. At the time, he was the manager of a restaurant called George Street Grocery, which has since become Ole Tavern on George Street.
Together with the owner of George Street and the owner of downtown Jackson restaurant CS’s, White obtained a permit to hold the parade during Jackson’s 5 p.m. rush hour. The parade route began at CS’s Restaurant and went up Capitol Street before ending on George Street. After that first event, city officials asked White to hold any other parades on weekends. The event now takes place on the fourth Saturday in March, barring when the COVID-19 pandemic suspended its execution.
Originally known as the Mal’s St. Paddy’s Parade, White changed the name to the Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade in 2016 in honor of his late brother Hal White, with whom White co-owned Hal and Mal’s restaurant in downtown Jackson. The restaurant now serves as both the starting and ending point for the parade.
Every year, the parade holds a 5k run to support Children’s of Mississippi hospital in downtown Jackson. This year’s run, which took place on Saturday, March 18, rather than on the day of the parade as in previous years, was the first held under its new name of “Run for the Rainbow.” The run’s 5k route began and ended at Hal & Mal’s in the same manner as the parade, while separate 10k and half marathon routes under the same banner took place in Jackson’s Belhaven neighborhood and at the University of Mississippi Medical Center campus. Future runs will occur on the third Saturday each March.
Another new addition to this year’s parade is the Buy a Barricade Program, which allows event sponsors to pay to place their names on security barricades placed along the streets of Jackson during the event for safety. Security concerns surrounding the City of Jackson’s own outdated barricades, which were becoming insufficient for the parade’s growing size and cost, had previously led White to consider changing the nature of the parade from one featuring motorized floats and vehicles to only including marching groups.
The restaurateur collaborated with Visit Jackson, the City of Jackson and Downtown Partners as well as Hal and Mal’s new owner Mary Sanders Ferris Cavicchi to devise programs such as Buy a Barricade to alleviate a portion of the cost of renting barricades for the parade, which White says runs upward of $40,000.
White says his decision to give the parade’s 40th-anniversary iteration a jazz theme followed his decision to name Wilson as the 2023 grand marshal.
“After every parade I go through a year-long process of deciding who I want to invite for the next one,” White says. “Sometimes I decide the theme first, and sometimes I decide the marshal first and marry the theme to who they are and what they do. Cassandra Wilson is an old dear friend of mine who has enjoyed a global career and came back home to Jackson to give back to the community that gave so much to her.”
“In Mississippi we make a lot out of being the ‘Birthplace of American Music,’ so I wanted to honor that and Cassandra’s place as a jazz and blues legend,” he adds.
‘Real Musicians Playing Real Music in Real Time’
Cassandra Wilson began performing as a vocalist in the 1970s and later moved to New York City in 1982, where she performed with artists such as Dave Holland and Abbey Lincoln. She later met saxophonist Steve Coleman and partnered with him to form a musical group called the M-Base Collective in 1984, along with fellow musicians such as Geri Allen, Greg Osby and Robin Eubanks.
After leaving the M-Base Collective, Wilson signed on with jazz label Blue Note Records in 1992 and released the album “Blue Light ’Til Dawn” a year later. In 1996 Wilson won her first Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance for her album “New Moon Daughter.” She toured with Wynton Marsalis for “Blood on the Fields” in 1997 and later won a second Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album for her 2009 album “Loverly.” Some of her other albums include “Belly of the Sun,” “Glamoured,” “Thunderbird,” “Silver Pony,” “Another Country” and “Coming Forth By Day.”
In 2012, Wilson collaborated with Ojah Media Group to open a listening room called the Yellow Scarf in downtown Jackson. Although the venue closed in 2016, Wilson says that some of her fondest memories of Jackson are of the times she performed there.
“What sets a listening room apart from something like a club is that the focus is on the music rather than drinks and socializing that can drown the music out,” Wilson says. “Our motto at Yellow Scarf was ‘Real musicians playing real music in real time,’ and our goal was essentially to capture the experience of listening to a symphony in miniature with original artists performing their own original material.”
“While it ultimately proved difficult to operate such a business at that time, I’m holding onto the hope that we’ll be able to reopen Yellow Scarf someday,” the artist adds.
Wilson also operates a website, reallycassandraradio.com, which features a section called the Secret Garden designed to give listeners access to selections from her published and unpublished music catalog.
Although Wilson describes herself as a private person who does not often participate in large events like the Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade, she says she nevertheless looks forward to her role as grand marshal and to taking part in the celebration.
“I’m going to be putting myself out there, leading the parade, tossing beads and having a good time with the people of Jackson,” Wilson says. “I want people to set aside the day of this parade as a time to enjoy each other and celebrate Jackson, the state of Mississippi and America.”
“Just like when I perform my music I want people to walk away feeling exhilarated, uplifted and wonderfully human, which to me means being grateful to be in your own body and enjoying the time you have on this planet,” she concludes.