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Interviews

Abbey Lincoln: Spirited and Spiritual

By Published: January 26, 2004
"The human being is spiritual. It's the only being on the planet that is spiritual, that we know of. We were given dominion here. And we're supposed to be useful to your relatives and distant relatives and everybody else. We know each other from the work that we've left. After the artist is gone the work that they leave here lives forever. We, as a people, have really been blessed in that there's always been some music," says Abbey, illustrating its longevity by noting the title cut, 'It's Me' is a traditional song — probably written 300 years ago, during slavery. "Nobody knows who wrote it. But the writer said something that's universal and forever. He said 'I'm the one. It's me who needs some prayer. Not anybody else. I'm the one who's in charge of my destiny.'"

Lincoln's lyrics throughout her career reflect emotions, personal discoveries and philosophies, and offer illustrative vignettes about existence. With all the trouble in the world, and the eternal struggle for jazz to gain acceptance in the United States, Lincoln is dismayed, but not depressed. Why? Perhaps it comes to down-home logic she learned going back to her childhood with 11 siblings and strong parenting.

"Life has a way of bringing you down front," she says sharply. "And you pay dues for being a fool."

Born Anna Maria Wooldridge, Abbey Lincoln has led a colorful life — cover girl model, actress, singer, political activist, musician — and draws on all her experiences to help shape her pointed observations. From a singing standpoint, she draws on only one person for inspiration.

"Billie Holiday. She sang about the world she lived in. She wasn't phony. And she didn't try to have a good voice. She just told everybody what it was. She told us what it was. It was easy to listen to. I didn't have to worry about her making any notes. It wasn't strange at all," says Abbey, intoning with emotion a lyric to a Holiday staple, " You?ve changed/That sparkle in your eye is gone/Your smile is just a careless yawn. "

"'Strange Fruit,' 'God Bless the Child That's Got His Own.' I don't know of another singer who did what she did, except for Bessie Smith who came before her."

Musically, she's influenced by many of the great jazz artists, including her former husband, the legendary Max Roach. "There's never been a greater drummer on the planet than him. I had a chance to hear Charlie Parker. I met Duke Ellington and Lionel Hampton. There's a great wealth of musicians. If you join this force, you will be rewarded wonderfully, if you know how to go there. Not everybody knows how to go there.

"Roach taught me a lot. I learned a lot from him. And Dizzy Gillespie. They are masters. They know exactly what's going down with the music. John Coltrane. They're not guessing at anything. They know what it is they're playing. That's why they call it jazz, because they don't want to give them credit for being anything. Then they'll say, 'I don't want to hear all that jazz.' It's not complimentary," says Lincoln. "In the meantime, that's all they have here in America. There are other forms that they call rock and rhythm and blues, and they're not serious forms. They're great forms. They're marvelous. But what they call jazz is the cream of the crop. It's the world that we live in. It lives forever. Louie Armstrong. Duke Ellington.

"I know we don't remember and don't understand. There's a part of me that forgets my self-existence. I know that we didn't do this on purpose. This was brought to us. When you can't claim your name, then you cannot know your ancestors. And consequently, you don't know your gods and don't know your power. This is what we're stuck with. This music that we call jazz is from these people, who remember, and don't remember anything."

As for other singers, she heard and knew them, but "I like Abbey a lot," she says with a glimmer. "I'm my best fan."

"I'm different," from other jazz singers, including Holiday, she says, "because I am also an actress. And I'm a composer and I'm a lyricist, and I paint. I think that I practice the arts to a greater extent than most people do. Most people are dependent on an industry to see them through. I don't give a hoot about the industry. They can give it to their mother !" she says, biting off the last word... "I met this work long before I even knew there was an industry. I don't need any money. I never did, because the forces have always seen to it that Abbey, even when my name was Anna Marie, didn't starve. I've never been without. I learned how to make garments. My mother taught me how. We had sewing machines, and we learned how to make things. I witnessed my father, whistling while pounding the nail in. That's who I come from."

Lincoln's parents are huge influences in her life.


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