The Ancestors Claim Singer/Actress/Songwriter Abbey Lincoln, 80
(A tribute video set to her song, “Throw It Away.” Some of the photos picture her with jazz drummer Max Roach, the man who inspired her to incinerate a form-fitting, breast-revealing dress once worn by Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and who helped set her on the road that she never relinquished. They were married for eight intensely-lived years; Lincoln never remarried after their divorce. As she admitted years later, “… It wasn’t a dream of mine to be a star, so Max came along at the right time to help save me from myself. Otherwise, I would have become an alcoholic and unhappy.”
(Abbey Lincoln discusses Billie Holiday’s influence on her life and work.)
Her real name was Anna Marie Wooldridge and she was a devotée at the vocal altar of Billie Holiday. But many remember her as the wife of Max Roach (together, they collaborated on the famous Freedom Now Suite); as the wife of Ivan Dixon in the independent Sixties film, Nothing But a Man (below), a film that was much admired by Malcolm X before his assassination; as Sidney Poitier’s love interest in For Love of Ivy in 1968; and more, as a singular force in the civil rights movement. So much so a force, that one disgruntled critic declared that she was nothing less than “a professional Negro.”
When they say stuff like that, you know you’re getting to them.
She was, in short, a queen.
If Abbey Lincoln was overwhelmed by the responsibility of being proclaimed “the last of the jazz singers”, she never let it show. As her great contemporaries and principal influences among the classic female jazz vocalists fell away – with Billie Holiday the first to go, in 1959, and Betty Carter the last, in 1998 – Lincoln steadfastly maintained her dignified, almost solemn, focus; her tart, deftly timed Holiday-like inflections, and her commitment to songs that dug deeper into life’s meanings than the usual lost-love exhalations.
Lincoln’s explicit emotionalism and liberties with pitching and intonation sometimes seemed to push her intentions and execution to the verge of separation – contemporary acquaintances including Monk and Charles Mingus were also expanding her ideas and technical ambitions – but she sounded nonetheless like an artist inhabiting a musical world increasingly her own, particularly on such tracks as the boldly vocalised Blue Monk, which Monk himself endorsed.
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.
Lincoln’s film roles, as the Washington Post put it, “[...] were among the first Hollywood depictions of mature, loving relationships between black women and black men.” Stuff that went way beyond simply confronting The Man. Sometimes you confront the past by being in the present. I think that Lincoln will always be remembered for these roles as well. In retrospect, they’re a far cry from what passes as black male and female relationships on screen these days.
After her 1970 divorce from Max Roach, Lincoln spent a month or two in a psychiatric hospital. On release, she kept busy and productive. She traveled to Africa and to other countries, cared for her aging mother, taught acting, and continued writing her own songs (it was Thelonious Monk who encouraged her in this endeavor). So she did not, as some obituaries have claimed, fall silent. Nor did she lapse into madness and limbo. Rather, she was having a time out. She was regrouping. Eventually, she did have something to say, which resulted in her comeback in the Eighties, Nineties and early 2000s.
Ever known for creative integrity (with Roach, she became a black nationalist, stopped straightening her hair, and wore African or unconventional clothing), Lincoln had a few pointed things to say about the younger black generation coming up:
In 1990, Ms. Lincoln returned to acting with a small role in Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues” (as trumpeter Bleek Gilliam’s mom) 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.”
Wonder if she finally realized, as did we all at the end, that Jackson’s skin disease, vitiligo, was a big part of that erasure. I have to hand it to her with the face changes…
Lincoln performed in concert until 2007, when after open-heart surgery, her health began to fail. She was the 10th of 12 children, and was born in Chicago, IL in the first year of the Great Depression on August 6. She was childless during her marriage to Max Roach. She is survived by her brothers, David and Kenneth Wooldridge, and a sister, Juanita Baker.
Part of her 1998 interview in Jazzwomen: Conversations with 21 Musicians, in which Lincoln says that African Americans may have forgotten their gods and ancestors. And that she survived even Freedom Suite. Starts on page 194.