The world according to jazz diva Abbey Lincoln
By Greg Cahill
Abbey Lincoln doesn’t like small talk. Sometimes ornery, often wistful, the 74-year-old jazz singer shoots strait from the hip during a phone interview from her Manhattan apartment. “I never thought I’d see these days, but I don’t imagine anybody else did either,” says Lincoln, commenting on what she sees as rampant commercialization and the lack of moral values in the music industry. “Too many performers today work for the industry and not for the people or for their own spirit. And that’s too bad.”
Nobody has ever accused Lincoln, the last of the great jazz divas, of lacking spirit. For four decades, her interpretive and compositional skills have colored twilight meditations on life and love, often tinged with a bittersweet sadness. “Yes, and I’m thankful for it,” she says of her highly personal songwriting style. “Thelonious Monk told me I was a composer; I didn’t know that until he told me.
“But I have a lot to say,” she adds, “and I don’t like the world that I found myself in, that I was created to be in. I was brought here, but I don’t like this ‘here.’ It’s the pits! If I wasn’t able to access myself through the work, I would have dropped dead a long time ago. I couldn’t have stood it here.”
Make no mistake, Lincoln, who headlines the fifth annual Healdsburg Jazz Festival on June 8, has proved an uncompromising artist, one who has fashioned the world–
“–according to Abbey!” she says with a laugh. “Yeah.”
A lot has gone into shaping this renaissance artist, an accomplished composer, actress, poet, and playwright whom Bob Russell, the lyricist who managed Lincoln’s early career, described as “Chicago-born, Kalamazoo-bred, jazz-band-trained, and honky-tonk educated.”
Born Anna Marie Wooldridge, Lincoln grew up on a Michigan farm as one of 12 children, yet she was a lonely child who found solace picking out melodies on the family’s piano. At 19 she won a talent contest and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a club singer. By 1952 she had moved to Honolulu to perform under the stage name Anna Marie. “I sang songs I heard Rosemary Clooney sing, songs that were popular on the radio,” Lincoln once told Lisa Jones of the New York Times.
But it was Billie Holiday who proved most influential. “I heard her on the Victrola for the first time when I was 14 years old and living in Michigan,” Lincoln recalls. “Her singing went right into my heart. She didn’t try for musical tricks; she would just tell you a story.”
In Honolulu the then-fledgling nightclub singer Lincoln had the opportunity to meet Holiday. “She was working at a club there, the Brown Derby, and I was working at another nightclub, the Trade Winds. It was the first time I’d had a chance to see her,” Lincoln says. “I would do my show and then I’d run over to see her. One night she came to the club where I worked–I figured she was just trying to get away from all the confusion that surrounded her at the club where she worked. She was a great queen and a great artist.”
What did these two jazz singers discuss?
“I don’t remember,” Lincoln insists, adding with a sly laugh, “That was like 90 years ago! But I did not take her as a peer, and I did not run up and get in her face. I was very respectful, as I knew I should be. She was always very sweet to me.”
In 1954 Lincoln returned to Hollywood to perform at the Moulin Rouge, a popular nightclub that featured a French-style revue replete with elephants and pink-dyed poodles. Singing under the stage name Gaby Lee, she wore feathered hats and dresses with revealing slits. In 1956, under Russell’s advice, she changed her name to Abbey Lincoln–a combination of Westminster Abbey and Abraham Lincoln.
That same year, Lincoln recorded her debut album, Abbey Lincoln’s Affair . . . a Story of a Girl in Love, appearing on the cover in provocative pose that furthered her reputation as a sex symbol. That status led to a bit part in the 1956 musical comedy The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. In the film, Lincoln wore a dress that Marilyn Monroe had worn in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
But in the 1960s, Lincoln underwent a personal and professional transformation from svelte supper-club chanteuse to outspoken and politically aware jazz singer and social activist. She married legendary jazz drummer Max Roach, starting a 10-year relationship that many credit with helping to reshape Lincoln. “He was my companion, and we worked together and exchanged ideas. A lot of folks like to think that he ‘created’ me, but he didn’t,” a defiant Lincoln says.
However, Roach did introduce Lincoln to such jazz greats as Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk. She soon began composing her own music and penned lyrics to Monk’s “Blue Monk” and Coltrane’s “Africa,” among other songs.
In 1960 Lincoln contributed screams and shouts to Roach’s landmark recording We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, which became the jazz anthem of the Civil Rights movement. As a result, Lincoln was branded a radical. Unwilling to stop speaking out on civil rights, she stopped recording altogether in the mid-’60s to focus on an acting career. In 1964, she starred in the film Nothing But a Man and in 1968 played the title role opposite Sidney Poitier in the romantic comedy For Love of Ivy. Both films deal with a relationship between an African-American couple.
Film historian Donald Bogle has credited Lincoln with being an important transitional figure in the portrayal of African Americans on the screen: “She wasn’t a nurturing mammy figure or oversexed. . . . It’s an image the media is not interested in or not comfortable with from an African-American woman.”
But in time the serious film roles dried up. Lincoln did later land several small TV roles, however, and Spike Lee cast her in his 1990 jazz tribute film Mo’ Better Blues. Despondent after her divorce from Roach and disillusioned with America’s social biases, Lincoln checked herself into a psychiatric hospital. During the ’70s, she seldom performed in the States, choosing instead to tour Europe and Africa.
In 1973 she released her comeback album, People in Me. Since then, Lincoln has released a string of acclaimed albums on the Enja and Verve labels. A new and as yet unnamed Verve album is due for release in the next few weeks.
For Lincoln, music–jazz music in particular–remains a force for good in the world, a pure and tangible power that can heal hearts and shape lives. “The only communion I have with this spiritual part of me that is called God is through the work that I have, through music, through words,” she says. “Nobody will ever know of you except from what you leave behind. If you practice the arts, then you’re somebody here. If you don’t, you’re not.”
The Abbey Lincoln Quartet perform Sunday, June 8, at 1pm at the Rodney Strong Vineyards, 11455 Redwood Hwy., Healdsburg. The James Newton Quartet open the concert. Tickets are $30. (See the Calendar for complete festival schedule.) 707.433.4633.
From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.