Jazz’s Golden Lady: The Singular Voice Of Abbey Lincoln

In her own compositions, she managed to capture what love, life, and self-discovery truly looked like for most of us – battle wounds and all – sans the idyllic imagery often found in most standards.

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Abbey Lincoln
Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns

Few artists have had as prolific a career as Abbey Lincoln. Each name given to her not only denotes a distinct moment in her development but also lends insight to the many experiences – and people – that had a hand in shaping her.

Anna Marie Wooldridge was the little girl who worshipped Billie Holiday, born in Chicago in 1930 and raised in rural Michigan. While Aminata Moseka was a woman in search of a higher purpose and newfound direction at the top of the 1970s. Given the name during a ceremony held in Zaire, she traveled there at the request of her good friend – South African vocalist Miriam Makeba – following her divorce from renowned drummer Max Roach. The latter name would prove instrumental to her career, unveiling a then-burgeoning penchant for songwriting, as she composed nearly 40 original songs in her lifetime.

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What’s in a name

Somewhere in between, however, as far back as her early 20s, she met lyricist Bob Russell, who later became her manager, and soon gave her the name Abbey Lincoln. A clever joining of Westminster Abbey with Abraham Lincoln, it would arguably take several decades before she would come into her own as “Abbey” – as both an artist and woman.

I had hoped to finally hear and meet Lincoln in 2007. She was to headline the 15th Annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, which takes place every August in both Harlem and the East Village. Arriving early at Tompkins Square Park to nab a seat as close as possible to the park’s stage, I both stood and sat for several hours, eagerly awaiting her arrival.

Still recuperating from open-heart surgery performed earlier that year at St. Luke’s Hospital, it was later announced that Lincoln was unable to perform and that Cassandra Wilson had graciously stepped in in her place. While I admire Wilson’s talents as a vocalist, I couldn’t help but feel overcome by Lincoln’s inability to perform that night and soon found myself straddled between anger and inconsolable as tears streamed down my face.

After countless close listens of her decade-worth of Verve releases – notably, When There Is Love, A Turtle’s Dream, and my personal favorite Wholly Earth – I not only felt that I knew her, but that she somehow knew me too – from the timbre of her voice and unique phrasing to her delivery of her lyrics, both singular and idiomatic. All informed by the arc of her life’s journey, she imparted her wisdom and invaluable life lessons gained directly to me.

In her own compositions, she managed to capture what love, life, and self-discovery truly looked like for most of us – battle wounds and all – sans the idyllic imagery often found in most standards. I just had to watch her perform, witness firsthand the woman whom I would come to worship and idolize, in hopes of marrying the image I created of her with the reality.

Years later, it became pretty evident as to why I reacted so strongly that night. It wasn’t just due to the fact that I had missed my opportunity to experience her perform live. But that she was soon to become yet another jazz great – another ancestor – who would be immortalized solely through their body of work, leaving me without any tangible connection to them: what made them who they were, what shaped their lives, what inspired their music.

Almost a year following that concert, I made the important decision to become a jazz critic, partly inspired by my desire to know the stories behind artists like Betty Carter and Abbey Lincoln, two women that would help shape my own identity in ways that are slowly revealing themselves to me, even today.

A musical and political convergence

Charting Lincoln’s discography backwards lends greater insight into the many artistic choices she made during her career – either by herself or on her behalf. Not long after moving to New York City to pursue a music career alongside her burgeoning acting career, she met Max Roach in 1957 during her engagement at The Village Vanguard. It was Roach who first introduced Lincoln to the great Orrin Keepnews, a former journalist who, alongside Bill Grauer, had formed Riverside Records just four years earlier.

Similar to his role as a critic, he once wrote in an essay that “our job is to create what is best described as ‘realism’– the impression and effect of being real – which may be very different from plain unadorned reality.” Lincoln’s second album for Riverside, aptly titled It’s Magic, had Lincoln unknowingly exploring these sentiments raised by Keepnews as an artist straddled between what was true and what merely appeared to be true, thanks to the collision of her increasingly political jazz and her acting career.

Recorded in the weeks both before and following her 28th birthday, for It’s Magic’s cover, she opted for a more subdued look, forgoing her once siren image first seen in her 1956 debut album Affair … A Story of a Girl in Love, and again in her first feature film cameo role in Jayne Mansfield’s The Girl Can’t Help It. In fact, for the latter, she famously wore a décolleté gown donned by Marilyn Monroe in 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

However, with Abbey Is Blue, her fourth album (third for Riverside), the impact of the Civil Rights Movement (and the influence of Billie Holiday) becomes more pronounced in Lincoln’s music. From the emotional heft she wrings out of “Lonely House” – penned by the great Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill – to lending her own original tune “Let Up,” we witness perhaps the beginnings of Lincoln’s ardent and lifelong search of her own identity, as both an artist and as a Black woman.

Through her involvement with Roach, both personally and professionally, Lincoln quickly pivoted alongside the times, helping her to not only hone her jazz chops but also shepherd her political awareness and activism through music, which we would both see and hear even more realized just two years later on Roach’s now-seminal We Insist! album.

While admirable for any artist to shift the trajectory of one’s career for the then-burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, in hindsight, it’s been hard not to wonder if Lincoln’s star power and potential were both stunted, and if it would have been more beneficial to her – and the resulting movement – had she simply chose to stay the course in her ascension to film stardom, given both her talent and promise as a film actress.

Not counting her television appearances, Lincoln would only appear on the big screen three other times: in Michael Roemer’s Nothing But a Man (1964), marking her debut performance in one of the most telling cinematic portraits of Black American life in the 60s; the 1968 romantic comedy For Love of Ivy, starring opposite Sidney Poitier, which earned her a Golden Globe nomination; and her final film appearance in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues (1990), his love letter to jazz in which Lincoln has a memorable, albeit brief, appearance as young Bleek’s mother, imploring him to continue to practice his scales on the trumpet.

Hard to know without having been there to witness this firsthand, it becomes pretty apparent that Lincoln dutifully followed Roach’s vision of political jazz for much of their time together, temporarily halting her own natural self-discovery and growth as an artist.

Creating her own path

At age 60, Lincoln would embark on arguably her most creative and commercially-successful period, signing a 10-album-contract with producer Jean-Philippe Allard for Gitanes, a French imprint of the Verve label, in 1990. It not only breathed new life into the iconic jazz label but more importantly, it had also welcomed a highly individualistic and original approach to jazz vocals, pioneered by the efforts of Lincoln, as well as labelmates Betty Carter and Shirley Horn. They also were instrumental in creating a platform for the burgeoning voices on the scene, now established players in their own right, notably bassist Christian McBride, trumpeters Nicholas Payton and the late Roy Hargrove, and pianist Marc Cary.

Seventeen years later, Lincoln recorded what would become her final album Abbey Sings Abbey. A retrospective of her Verve’ material, Lincoln uncovers newer possibilities with every song, adding to them the breadth and wisdom gained from her many life experiences. It was a crowning moment for a career that would gloriously spurn the trodden road in jazz, creating her own path and establishing a precedent for future jazz vocalists.

Late last year, I began to take steps towards changing my own surname, in honor of my dad – a brilliant musician whose life and promise were cut short. This moment makes me feel even more connected to Abbey Lincoln. In the many different phases of life, whether as “Anna Marie” or “Aminata,” in the end, she would get to fully embrace being Abbey.

Though her life was full of starts and stops – great joys and sacrifices – Lincoln never stopped the search for herself, ultimately writing compositions that offered just a mere yet telling glimpse of who she was and why what she had to say mattered. Through her many original works, at long last, I’m finally getting to meet her.

Abbey Is Blue will be available on May 28 and can be pre-ordered here

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Sam Johnson

    April 3, 2021 at 2:06 pm

    Shannon Ali,

    Really enjoyed reading this piece. I had the pleasure of seeing, meeting, and befriending Abbey Lincoln as well as many of the artists and musicians featured in your article. As you mentioned in the article, she love Billie Holiday but she often mentioned her love of listening to Ruth Brown another great legend. I’m quite sure Ms. Lincoln would have loved meeting and talking with you.

    Sam Johnson

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