Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Abbey Lincoln, 1930-2010: Groundbreaking Singer, Songwriter, Actor, and Activist



Abbey Lincoln was an iconic cultural figure and one of the most important and creatively profound singers--and later songwriters--of the past half century. Belonging to an elite and exclusive pantheon of truly original and innovative song stylists and expressive vocal artists in the Jazz tradition like such towering and legendary figures as Billie Holiday (1915-1959), Sarah Vaughan (1924-1990), Ella Fitzgerald (1917-1996), Betty Carter (1929-1998), Dinah Washington (1924-1963), and Nina Simone (1933-2003), Lincoln (born Anna Marie Wooldridge) was an extraordinary and highly gifted individual who not only excelled as a singer and songwriter (and painter) but was also a very fine actress. She was also a deeply committed and progressive social activist who with her late husband the legendary Jazz drummer and composer Max Roach (1924-2007) played a pivotal and dynamic role in the radical African American political and cultural movements of the 1960s and '70s. To say that Lincoln's magnificent and lasting contributions will be sorely missed is a great understatement. She was simply one of the short list of absolutely major and indispensable American artists of our time and like her phenomenal mentors and contemporaries in music, acting, and the visual arts her legacy has been and will continue to be felt wherever great art is being created and shared in this society and culture...


Abbey Lincoln, Bold and Introspective Jazz Singer, Dies at 80

August 14, 2010
New York Times

Abbey Lincoln, a singer whose dramatic vocal command and tersely poetic songs made her a singular figure in jazz, died on Saturday in Manhattan. She was 80 and lived on the Upper West Side.

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Singer-composer Abbey Lincoln at her home in Manhattan in 2002.

Cinerama Releasing
Ms. Lincoln in the 1968 film “For Love of Ivy.”

Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos
Ms. Lincoln, 1991.

Her death was announced by her brother David Wooldridge.

Ms. Lincoln’s career encompassed outspoken civil rights advocacy in the 1960s and fearless introspection in more recent years, and for a time in the 1960s she acted in films, including one with Sidney Poitier.

Long recognized as one of jazz’s most arresting and uncompromising singers, Ms. Lincoln gained similar stature as a songwriter only over the last two decades. Her songs, rich in metaphor and philosophical reflection, provide the substance of “Abbey Sings Abbey,” an album released on Verve in 2007. As a body of work, the songs formed the basis of a three-concert retrospective presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2002.

Her singing style was unique, a combined result of bold projection and expressive restraint. Because of her ability to inhabit the emotional dimensions of a song, she was often likened to Billie Holiday, her chief influence. But Ms. Lincoln had a deeper register and a darker tone, and her way with phrasing was more declarative.

“Her utter individuality and intensely passionate delivery can leave an audience breathless with the tension of real drama,” Peter Watrous wrote in The New York Times in 1989. “A slight, curling phrase is laden with significance, and the tone of her voice can signify hidden welts of emotion.”

She had a profound influence on other jazz vocalists, not only as a singer and composer but also as a role model. “I learned a lot about taking a different path from Abbey,” the singer Cassandra Wilson said. “Investing your lyrics with what your life is about in the moment.”

Ms. Lincoln was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago on Aug. 6, 1930, the 10th of 12 children, and raised in rural Michigan. In the early 1950s, she headed west in search of a singing career, spending two years as a nightclub attraction in Honolulu, where she met Ms. Holiday and Louis Armstrong. She then moved to Los Angeles, where she encountered the accomplished lyricist Bob Russell.

It was at the suggestion of Mr. Russell, who had become her manager, that she took the name Abbey Lincoln, a symbolic conjoining of Westminster Abbey and Abraham Lincoln. In 1956, she made her first album, “Affair ... a Story of a Girl in Love” (Liberty), and appeared in her first film, the Jayne Mansfield vehicle “The Girl Can’t Help It.” Her image in both cases was decidedly glamorous: On the album cover she was depicted in a décolleté gown, and in the movie she sported a dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe.

For her second album, “That’s Him,” released on the Riverside label in 1957, Ms. Lincoln kept the seductive pose but worked convincingly with a modern jazz ensemble that included the tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins and the drummer Max Roach. In short order she came under the influence of Mr. Roach, a bebop pioneer with an ardent interest in progressive causes. As she later recalled, she put the Monroe dress in an incinerator and followed his lead.

The most visible manifestation of their partnership was “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” issued on the Candid label in 1960, with Ms. Lincoln belting Oscar Brown Jr.’s lyrics. Now hailed as an early masterwork of the civil rights movement, the album radicalized Ms. Lincoln’s reputation. One movement had her moaning in sorrow, and then hollering and shrieking in anguish — a stark evocation of struggle. A year later, after Ms. Lincoln sang her own lyrics to a song called “Retribution,” her stance prompted one prominent reviewer to deride her in print as a “professional Negro.”

Ms. Lincoln, who married Mr. Roach in 1962, was for a while more active as an actress than a singer. In 1964 she starred with Ivan Dixon in “Nothing but a Man,” a tale of the Deep South in the 1960s, and in 1968 she was the title character opposite Mr. Poitier in the romantic comedy “For Love of Ivy,” playing a white family’s maid. She also acted on television in guest-starring roles in the ’60s and ’70s.

But with the exception of “Straight Ahead” (Candid), on which “Retribution” appeared, she released no albums in the 1960s. And after her divorce from Mr. Roach in 1970, she took an apartment above a garage in Los Angeles and withdrew from the spotlight for a time. She never remarried.

In addition to Mr. Wooldridge, Ms. Lincoln is survived by another brother, Kenneth Wooldridge, and a sister, Juanita Baker.

During a visit to Africa in 1972, Ms. Lincoln received two honorary appellations from political officials: Moseka, in Zaire, and Aminata, in Guinea. (Moseka would occasionally serve as her surname.) She began to consider her calling as a storyteller and focused on writing songs.

Moving back to New York in the 1980s, Ms. Lincoln resumed performing, eventually attracting the attention of Jean-Philippe Allard, a producer and executive with PolyGram France. Ms. Lincoln’s first effort for what is now the Verve Music Group, “The World Is Falling Down” (1990), was a commercial and critical success.

Eight more albums followed in a similar vein, each produced by Mr. Allard and enlisting top-shelf jazz musicians like the tenor saxophonist Stan Getz and the vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson. In addition to elegant originals like “Throw It Away” and “When I’m Called Home,” the albums featured Ms. Lincoln’s striking interpretations of material ranging from songbook standards to Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

For “Abbey Sings Abbey” Ms. Lincoln revisited her own songbook exclusively, performing in an acoustic roots-music setting that emphasized her affinities with singer-songwriters like Mr. Dylan. Overseen by Mr. Allard and the American producer-engineer Jay Newland, the album boiled each song to its essence and found Ms. Lincoln in weathered voice but superlative form.

When the album was released in May 2007, Ms. Lincoln was recovering from open-heart surgery. In her Upper West Side apartment, surrounded by her own paintings and drawings, she reflected on her life, often quoting from her own song lyrics. After she recited a long passage from “The World Is Falling Down,” one of her more prominent later songs, her eyes flashed with pride. “I don’t know why anybody would give that up,” she said. “I wouldn’t. Makes my life worthwhile.”


Jazz singer, actress Abbey Lincoln dies at 80

Abbey Lincoln simplified her singing style. "It isn't about showing how good your voice is," she said. "It's about saying something." (Brad Barket/getty Images)

By Matt Schudel Washington Post Staff Writer Sunday, August 15, 2010

Abbey Lincoln, a jazz singer and actress of unshakable integrity who transformed her image from that of a slinky chanteuse to an oracle of hard-won wisdom, died Aug. 14 in New York. She had been in precarious health since having open-heart surgery in 2007, but the precise cause of death could not be learned. She was 80.

Ms. Lincoln found early fame as a sex-kitten supper-club singer and made a cameo appearance in the campy 1956 teen film "The Girl Can't Help It," starring Jayne Mansfield. After meeting and later marrying jazz drummer Max Roach, she became one of the first entertainers to make civil rights and racial pride an overt cause. She was a noted film actress in the 1960s, then retreated to obscurity before staging a remarkable comeback in the 1990s as a singer, songwriter and spiritual elder.

"Certain people inside the African-American experience . . . act as griots, bearers of the culture," singer Cassandra Wilson told Newsweek magazine in 1992. "Paul Robeson was something like that. And so is she."

Soon after making "The Girl Can't Help It," in which she appeared in a sparkly dress previously worn by Marilyn Monroe, Ms. Lincoln abandoned her come-hither style and the form-fitting gowns that went with it. She even burned the dress in an incinerator, she said, as a symbol of personal emancipation.

She stopped straightening her hair and in 1959 released one of her most memorable early albums, "Abbey Is Blue." In 1960, she and Roach made the then-radical recording "We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite," which has been called the first outright protest album. It included Roach's thundering drums and Ms. Lincoln's occasional shrieks and moans, representing oppression and hardship.

"That was one of the most thrilling experiences I ever had," the album's producer, Nat Hentoff, said Saturday. "Everything was at a high level of intensity."

Other critics, however, derided Ms. Lincoln for introducing a political element to jazz, and her opportunities to record began to dwindle. Turning to acting, she starred with Ivan Dixon in the 1964 racial drama "Nothing But a Man" and as a maid opposite Sidney Poitier in "For Love of Ivy" (1968). The films were among the first Hollywood depictions of mature, loving relationships between black women and black men.

After her eight-year marriage to Roach ended, Ms. Lincoln spent the 1970s caring for her mother in Los Angeles. She taught acting, traveled in Africa and concentrated on writing songs. In the early 1980s, she settled in New York and returned to performing, with a distinctly fresh approach.

"I don't scream anymore," she said. "I sing about my life."

She drew inspiration from one of her idols, Billie Holiday, paring her singing to an unembellished minimum. Unlike many jazz singers, Ms. Lincoln indulged in little improvisation or scatting, the singing of wordless syllables in rapid sequence.

"I learned from Billie," she told The Washington Post in 2006. "It isn't about showing how good your voice is. It's about saying something."

Lacking the elastic vocal range of her early years, Ms. Lincoln found a new emotional depth in such later recordings as "The World Is Falling Down" (1990), "Devil's Got Your Tongue" (1993), "A Turtle's Dream" (1995) and "Who Used to Dance" (1996).


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Her 1991 album, "You Gotta Pay the Band," featured original songs as well as a haunting rendition of the 1930s standard "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" The recording gained much of its lyrical poignancy from some the final performances of saxophonist Stan Getz, who died of cancer soon after.

"Stan helped save my career," Ms. Lincoln said in 1999. "Whenever a great musician works with you, it's an endorsement."

Ms. Lincoln performed at the Kennedy Center during the 2006 Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival and released her final album, "Abbey Sings Abbey," in 2007.

"She was always moving ahead," Hentoff said. "She had a presence. She was always so individual."

She was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago on Aug. 6, 1930, and grew up in rural Michigan as the tenth of 12 children. Drawn to music at an early age, she moved to Los Angeles at 19 and modeled her early career after Lena Horne.

From 1952 to 1954, she performed in Honolulu under the stage name Anna Marie, then returned to Los Angeles, where she adopted the name Gaby Lee. In 1956, she came up with Abbey Lincoln -- a combination of Westminster Abbey and Abraham Lincoln.

After meeting Roach in 1957, Ms. Lincoln became friends with other jazz musicians, including Thelonious Monk, who encouraged her in her first efforts as a songwriter.

Ms. Lincoln spent more than a month in a psychiatric hospital after her divorce from Roach in 1970 and never remarried. Survivors include two brothers and a sister.

In 1990, Ms. Lincoln returned to acting with a small role in Spike Lee's "Mo' Better Blues" but had mixed feelings about the film and about black artists who held African American life up to ridicule. She was particularly critical of Michael Jackson and his physical transformation: "He's brilliant; he can sing and dance in the tradition of his African ancestors, but he curses them by erasing them from his face and hair."

In her later years, through her majestic performances and her uncompromising integrity, Ms. Lincoln came to be seen as something of the guiding conscience of jazz.

"Sing a song correctly," she said, "and you live forever."


Jazz singer championed civil rights ABBEY LINCOLN, 1930 - 2010
by Keith Thursby
August 15, 2010
Los Angeles Times

Abbey Lincoln, an acclaimed jazz singer, songwriter and actress who evolved from a supper-club singer into a strong voice for civil rights, has died. She was 80.

Lincoln died Saturday in a nursing home in New York, said Evelyn Mason, her niece. No cause was given, but she had been in failing health.

Lincoln built a career as an actress and singer in the late 1950s through the turbulent 1960s, then stepped away during the 1970s and, years later, returned to prominence as a singer praised for her songwriting abilities.

"There was a passion to what she did," said jazz critic Don Heckman, who noted that Lincoln's songwriting made her a rarity among jazz singers. "She was not someone who was just singing a song. She had an agenda, and a lot of it had to do with civil rights.... She expressed herself in dramatic and impressive fashion in what she said and how she sang."

Her voice was a "special instrument, producing a sound that is parched rather than pure or perfect," wrote the New York Times' Peter Watrous in 1996. "But her limitations infuse her singing with honesty. More important, she understands the words she sings, declaiming them with a flare of memory that seems to illuminate all the lost love and sadness people experience."

She was often compared to Billie Holiday, one of her early influences. Times jazz writer Leonard Feather, writing after a Lincoln performance in 1986, said he could see glimpses of Holiday. "Not so much vocally as visually -- a slight toss of the head, a jutting of the jaw," he wrote. "As Lincoln said, 'We all stand on the shoulders of those who preceded us.' "

And Lincoln made an impact on the next generation.

"She opened up doors, not just in the sense of career possibilities but as empowerment to be myself when I sang," singer Cassandra Wilson told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

Lincoln was born Anna Marie Wooldridge on Aug. 6, 1930, in Chicago, the 10th of 12 children. The family soon moved to rural Michigan.

She moved to California in 1951 and performed in local clubs, then spent two years singing in Honolulu before coming back to Los Angeles. And she became Abbey Lincoln, inspired by Westminster Abbey and Abraham Lincoln. Her manager, songwriter Bob Russell, thought of the name.

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Lincoln had a role in the 1956 film "The Girl Can't Help It," in which she wore a dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe. The appearance, coupled with her first album, "Abbey Lincoln's Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love," gave her a glamorous image. That
changed when she started working with jazz drummer Max Roach, whose music would reflect the coming civil rights struggle. They married in 1962.

"I started out being a sexy young thing in a Marilyn Monroe dress," she told The Times in 2000, "And Max Roach freed me from that." The 1960 release "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite" included Lincoln's wordless, sometimes screaming duet with Roach and was a landmark musical statement of the civil rights movement. Lincoln "was like an OK supper singer," critic and producer Nat Hentoff told The Times in 1993. "Then I went down to the Village Gate here in New York where Max and she were doing the 'Freedom Now Suite.' It was just extraordinary, the power of it." Critics were divided. "We all paid a price, but it was important to say something," she told the Wall Street Journal in 2007. "It still is." Movie roles followed, including "Nothing But a Man" in 1964 and "For Love of Ivy" in 1968, in which she starred with Sidney Poitier. Lincoln "was a really gifted person and a truly wonderful actress. She was the kind of person you expected to live forever," Poitier told The Times on Saturday. "She was gifted in so many ways. She was quite productive, and it was quite rewarding for those of us who heard her sing and watched her act."

Lincoln and Roach divorced in 1970, and she returned to California to "cleanse her spirit," she told The Times in 1993. She taught at what is now Cal State Northridge, did some television work and performed only occasionally.

Her career took off again in the late 1980s, with works including two 1987 albums paying tribute to Holiday.

Living in New York, she moved to the Verve Music Group and had commercial and artistic success with "The World Is Falling Down" in 1990 and "You Gotta Pay the Band" in 1991, in which she performed with saxophone great Stan Getz.

Her final new release was "Abbey Sings Abbey" in 2007.

Lincoln is survived by brothers David and Kenneth Wooldridge and a sister, Juanita Baker.