Abbey Lincoln, Jazz Singer and Writer, Dies at 80
By NATE CHINEN
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.
Singer-composer Abbey Lincoln at her home in Manhattan in 2002.
The latest on the arts, coverage of live events, critical reviews, multimedia extravaganzas and much more. Join the discussion.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 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. She starred in the films “Nothing but a Man,” in 1964, and “For Love of Ivy,” opposite Sidney Poitier, in 1968. 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.”