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 Saturday, 28 November 2015
Her Spirit Now Free: Abbey Lincoln, 1930-2010 PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Friday, 20 August 2010

"Abbey deals with the real word. ... Singers like Abbey, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith ... go beyond being jazz singers because they are storytellers." –Max Roach

Abbey Lincoln (1959) by Paul Hoeffler/Redferns

Four singers I regret never hearing live (although it seems I should have, as I was certainly around when they were still performing)—Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn and Abbey Lincoln. And I was well acquainted with the music of the first three well before I was introduced to the music of Abbey Lincoln through Kendra Shank’s marvelous tribute, A Spirit Free: The Abbey Lincoln Songbook (2007).  

Upon learning of Lincoln’s death on August 14th, Shank told the Associated Press, "It's impossible to measure the impact that she and her work have had on me as an artist and a human being." Lincoln similarly affected many performers, vocalists and otherwise, within the jazz and greater arts and even political community during her 50+ year career as a singer, composer, actress and political activist.  

Born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago and raised in rural Michigan, Lincoln was the 10th of 12 children. Later she recalled hearing Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins on a hand-cranked Victrola gramophone. A self taught pianist and vocalist, her first singing jobs were as a teen in Kalamazoo, later in Los Angeles and then Honolulu in her early 20s. Working nightclubs in Honolulu, she first met Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Having performed under stage names Gaby Wooldridge and Gaby Lee, lyricist (and her manager) Bob Russell suggested the stage name Abbey Lincoln (after Westminister Abbey and Abe Lincoln). "He gave me the name because he knew I was concerned about my people," Lincoln said in a 1993 AP interview. 

A Turtle's Dream
Her first recording was with Benny Carter in the mid 50s. In 1956, with the release of her own debut album (Affair… A Story of a Girl in Love) and first film (a small singing part in Jayne Mansfield’s The Girl Can’t Help It), she was immediately identified as a glamour girl, and in fact in her first film wore a gown once worn by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (She later burned the gown in protest over the sexualization of her image.) Her second recording, That’s Him (Riverside, 1957) found her working effectively with Sonny Rollins and Max Roach. Roach’s influence as both a bebop proponent and civil rights activist led to Lincoln’s collaboration with the great drummer on We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (Candid, 1960), featuring lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr and a performance that shocked many for her angry screaming. Quickly, Abbey Lincoln’s image shifted from glamour girl to political radical, an image that limited her opportunities to some degree during the volatile 60s. She married Roach in 1962, and during the 60s gained more attention as an actress than vocalist. She starred in the 1964 film Nothing But a Man opposite Ivan Dixon, and played the title role with Sidney Poitier in For Love of Ivy (1968), along with guest roles on television; she then refused roles that she viewed as exploiting race relations, not appearing on film again until Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues in 1990. Her only album of this period was Straight Ahead (Candid), featuring her hit “Retribution.” Lincoln and Roach divorced in 1970, and her recordings and performances over the next decade were few and far between.

After living in California and doing more teaching (of theater) than singing, Abbey Lincoln came back in the mid-80s with Verve and the commercially successful The World Is Falling Down (1990) with Hank Jones and Clark Terry. Continuing with producer Jean-Philippe Allard, she released eight more recordings with such artists as Stan Getz (You Gotta Pay the Band) and Pat Metheny (A Turtle’s Dream), and including acclaimed original songs like “Throw It Away,” “Wholly Earth” and “When I’m Called Home.” In addition to an emphasis on original material, she also covered standards and the songs of Bob Dylan. On her last recording, Abbey Sings Abbey (Verve, 2007), she presented material which had provided the core of a three-concert retrospective at Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2002. She was tapped as an NEA Jazz Master in 2006. 

Lincoln was known as an assertive, uncompromising singer who personalized her music through phrasing, alterations of pitch and interpretation (“a combined result of bold projection and expressive restraint,” noted Nate Chinen in the New York Times); she cited as her key influences the great Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday. "I learned from Billie," she told The Washington Post (2006). "It isn't about showing how good your voice is. It's about saying something." 

Although Thelonious Monk had encouraged Lincoln to write her own songs (she wrote lyrics to his “Blue Monk” for her Straight Ahead in 1961 and a few other songs), it was 20 years into her career before she fully turned to expression through songwriting, influenced by a visit to Africa in the mid 70s and her self-recognition that her true calling was as a storyteller. "I don't scream anymore," she said. "I sing about my life."

Abbey Lincoln (Associated Press)
“The stories in her songs are deeply personal and universal; socially relevant, spiritual, ironic, compassionate, tender, ferocious, uplifting, celebratory," said Kendra Shank (Associated Press). Lincoln wrote songs that addressed far more than the usual themes, “beyond unrequited love,” explained Shank in a JazzINK interview following the release of A Spirit Free. Rather, Lincoln’s songs addressed “love on other levels, love of life… songs like ‘Down Here Below’ that are about sometimes feeling lost, how difficult the human condition can be and reaching for a higher power to guide you through it… what that feels like, finding the strength within yourself, how to meet challenges and survive on the planet.” Noted Cassandra Wilson, “I learned a lot about taking a different path from Abbey. Investing your lyrics with what your life is about in the moment.” 

Lincoln had been in failing health since open heart surgery in 2007, and died in a Manhattan nursing home at age 80. She is survived by two brothers and a sister. 

"I live through music and it lives through me." –Abbey Lincoln 

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