Nancy Wilson, 1937-2018

Dec 14, 2018

The famed vocalist Nancy Wilson died on Thursday at her home near Los Angeles. She was 81. The Chillicothe, Ohio, native was an elegant beauty whom I first knew of through her early 1960s television appearances as both a singer and actress. I remember feeling somewhat mesmerized by her, and as I've reviewed clips of her on YouTube in recent years, I've concluded that it was her stillness and self-possession that initially drew me in; compared with the outsized figures I was accustomed to seeing on TV, she seemed perfectly calm and composed. Of course, I Iater came to appreciate her as a jazz stylist who made impeccable albums with Cannonball Adderley and George Shearing, and a few with the richly expressive tenor saxophonist Ben Webster as guest soloist. Wilson began singing as a four-year-old, and there was music in her home and local church, but her big-name influences were Dinah Washington and Little Jimmy Scott. They're both clearly evident in this performance of Buddy Johnson's great blues ballad, "Save Your Love for Me." The song's subtle harmonic movement still impresses me as ideally suited to Nancy's style.

Nancy Wilson was a determined and self-possessed artist who resisted the narrow definitions of jazz singer, and all that that termed implied regarding lifestyle, when she emerged in the early 1960s. Her voice, which could be earthy, seemed to flow into a song as light as a feather and with a hint of surprise. In later years (1995-2005) she hosted the NPR series Jazz Profiles, where many of the subjects were her former colleagues, and she'll remain best known for the jazz-oriented albums she made for Capitol. I'll always remember Ms. Wilson for the gracious and collegial way she spoke with me at a jazz educators conference (IAJE) in Long Beach, CA, where Billy Taylor introduced us twenty-plus years ago.

Here's Nancy's 1962 appearance on Jazz Scene U.S.A. The show's host, Oscar Brown, Jr., narrates her story in between songs in a manner similar to one that Wilson employed 30 years later in Jazz Profiles. Her accompanists include pianist Lou Levy, bassist Al McKibbon, and drummer Kenny Dennis, who was her husband at the time. There's a sweet meeting between them following Nancy's performance of "Never Will I Marry."