NEA Jazz Master, Abbey Lincoln (August 6, 1930—August 14, 2010), was a towering figure of musical expression, feminism, and Afrocentrism who led a colorful life—cover girl, actress, model, singer and political activist. She was spirited, spiritual, an original. During the 1940’s to the late 1960’s, Ms. Lincoln had considerable success as an actress and singer. Her 10 year association with drummer, Max Roach (they were married from 1962-1970) resulted in recordings on Riverside Records.
In 1960 Abbey’s lyrics, powerful vocals, screams and all, saturated Max’s landmark, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite! putting her at the forefront of the civil rights movement. A fashion icon, Abbey donned an Afro hairdo that led hairdressers to protest she was going to put them out of business.
When her marriage to Max dissolved, she moved back to Los Angeles to live above her mother’s garage. Abbey disappeared from view only to reemerge, triumphant, in 1980 at age 60. Her time in self-imposed exile was fruitful. She discovered her own identity, her muse, herself. Few commercial recordings resulted from that period, but two live performances captured at the storied San Francisco club, Keystone Korner, have been issued.
Volume One, Sophisticated Abbey and Volume Two, Love Having You Around on the Highnote label were recorded during one week in March of 1980. Of the 22 songs chosen, seven are originals. Ms. Lincoln is in fine form, relaxed, comfortable, in control and sounding happy.
Listen to her sing what has become one of her signature tunes, Throw It Away, as if she is having a conversation about life and letting go. Socially conscious, Abbey re-recorded When Malindy Sings (a poem written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, music by Oscar Brown, Jr.) that she had released on her 1961 Straight Ahead (Candid) release.
An exceptional performer and thespian to her core during her time in California, Abbey took her acting to another dimension where she, the singer and the song became one. The embodiment of jazz, Abbey stood on the artistic shoulders of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. They were lauded for their delivery of songs, not necessarily for their singing voices. Abbey was aware of her vocal limitations, so she didn’t scat or sing outside her range nor did she worry about hitting the critical notes.
Abbey told her story. She conveyed who she was and spoke about the world she lived in. She created her own style, songbook and musical universe. Like Miles Davis, Abbey Lincoln made evolutionary albums. An artist who surrounded herself with exceptional musicians able to execute her ideas. A woman of many accomplishments. One of the first women of color to appear in a mainstream American rock ’n’ roll movie, “The Girl Can’t Help It” in 1956, Ms. Lincoln was one of the first to publicly embrace the “Black is Beautiful” message and aesthetic. Abbey Lincoln was an unsung pioneer worthy of wider appreciation and recognition.
Sheila Anderson is a writer and an announcer at WGBO New York