Abbey Lincoln: African Queen in a Top Hat
(This interview was conducted in 2002)
Abbey Lincoln made a stop in Amsterdam in 1998 for a rare appearance at the 110-year old Concertgebouw, where Sonny Rollins likes to play when he comes to town. The sellout crowd was composed mainly of seemingly staid yet perennially hip "pensionados" (as the Dutch like to refer to their restless retirees) but by the end of the final encore, the historic hall had reached a collective groove and the ghosts of Mahler and Mozart were probably bopping their heads to the beat. Lincoln's second encore was a tribute to her friend Betty Carter, who had died just weeks earlier: "I'll be Seeing You."
After the concert I met her backstage with the Surinamese jazz singer Denise Jannah.
We sipped tea and talked about "Miss Betty" and the work she had pioneered with young musicians, passing the jazz torch from one generation to the next the way Wynton Marsalis has done with his ambitious Lincoln Center initiative. Three years later the conversation continued in New York at her Upper Westside apartment, surrounded by her paintings, poems and drawings.
Our conversation was more like a pleasant stream of consciousness monologue rather than a formal interview, with some occasional musical interjections at her piano. Elegant, energetic, and generous of spirit, she spoke fierce and frankly, dispersing eloquent sound bites on a variety of subjects, punctuated by an occasional earthy laugh. Not one to suffer fools or to be subject to someone's jive onslaught, she was still promenading to the beat of her own iconoclastic drum. She was very much immersed in songwriting, recording and doing the occasional tour. Painting was another passion, and so was simply enjoying what each day had in store. With a sigh, she reflected in her usual take no prisoners tone: "Sometimes it's enough (just) to get up out of the bed and face a weary, pitiful world. I don't get up and hit the piano. I don't get up and hit anything. I sit around doing whatever I please and if it's nothing, than that's what I do. I enjoy my leisure, I'm not driven."
As the tenth of twelve children, she was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in 1930 and raised on a farm in Morgan Park, a suburb of Chicago. She says that her father Alexander "midwifed my mother Evelyn for the last six children." They were a first generation family from slavery, but she says: "I didn't hear them blaming anybody about their situation. They didn't talk about people who weren't in the house. They didn't blame the Europeans. There wasn't the political awareness then, there was no scapegoat. They talked about the family, the great grandparents. My mother told us over and over who we were. She was the storyteller in the family. My parents knew they were poor. They made everything. My father built our house by heart. He didn't go to school to be an architect. He worked as a handyman and the people he worked for knew he had a big family. They gave them the piano, the victrola, and the recordings."
The acquisition of the piano and victrola would create quite an impact on a family who enjoyed music. "My mother and father let me experiment and stumble on the piano. When I was five or six, I heard Bert Williams, who was known for the song he sang in the Ziegfeld Follies about a terrible life: "Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries." Music was a positive influence that would leave a solid imprint, and she reveals that "out of six girls and six boys I am the only one who came to the stage. My mother and father taught all of us to be somebody, whether it was a judge or a tool and die maker, or a VIP at Motorola in Chicago. All of the women brought children up except for me, and one of my sisters has twelve children." Lincoln was ten when her parents divorced, and recalls: "They needed a divorce then because there were too many people around. My father needed his own house and so did my mother. We lived in that home until I was 14 and then moved with my mother to Kalamazoo, Michigan."
Between 14 and 19 she sang at in high school at band follies, and during the holidays at grade schools. "I wasn't much for being part of the choir, though Reverend Smith knew I was a singer and he sent for me when he went to Jackson, Michigan. He paid me $5 to sing for the youngsters. I was 19 by then and my first paying job was in the basement of the church because it was not considered holy music. I only had three songs: 'Don't Blame Me,' 'Stormy Weather,' and 'Sunday Kind Of Love.' I used to listen to Billie on a recording we had, and to Sarah Vaughan on the radio, and everybody else: Dinah [Washington], Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Pearl [Bailey], and Louis Armstrong."
She shakes her head, then continues: "I didn't plan any of this. My life is really a happening. I didn't ask my mother for a piano when we moved, but she got one for me. The others didn't play cause they didn't want to. They left me alone, they didn't tell me when to stop or to start. I never planned my life or planned to do anything. When I was a younger woman I dreamed of meeting a man. I never knew I would have this career. I guess I was made to do this. It's not for money. It's for the sake of my spirit. I can say that I've been fortunate all my life. There's always been somebody who has helped me, who said: 'What do you want to do, Abbey'?"
Lincoln set off for Honolulu when she was 22, where she would stay for two years, singing in nightclubs and meeting up with Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, whose singular approach to singing would eventually reflect in her own unique song renderings. She then headed west to Los Angeles where she crossed paths with Bob Russell, "the great lyricist who named me Abbey Lincoln," in dual homage to Westminster Abbey and the 16th President who brought an end to slavery. She also met Eddie Beale, a coach who she says, "took away all of the habits I learned from listening to other singers like Ella and Billie. He told me: 'I don't want you to sing it as it's written on the paper and don't make a variation unless you feel it.' Billie, Sarah, Dinah and Ella did that. Bob Russell taught me what a great song was. He said: 'It's a story that hopefully not covered by anyone else; succinct and to the point. It's an original story, a thought that hasn't been explored by another writer.'"
In 1956, she made her first record, Affair...a Story of a Girl in Love (Liberty) and soon appeared in her first film which was a vehicle for Jayne Mansfield, The Girl Can't Help It. Her second album, That's Him was released in 1957 (Riverside) and included Sonny Rollins on tenor sax and the bebop drummer Max Roach, who was also a vocal civil rights activist. They began a musical partnership of sorts with We Insist! Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite (Candid), on which Lincoln signified Oscar Brown Jr.'s searing lyrics. This would be considered an early masterwork and was the beginning of Lincoln's detour into radical terrain and vocalizations that included howling, moaning, shrieking and the occasional screech. A year later, Lincoln wrote her own lyrics to a song called "Retribution" that had some well-known reviewer dismiss her with a racist jibe as being "a professional Negro."
When efforts continued to focus on establishing her as a potential pinup image, she eventually told a clique of career-building sycophants "to all go to hell." It started with a very low-cut dress that had once been worn by Marilyn Monroe. She bristles at the memory and says: "When I was hangin' with Roach he finally said, "I don't like that dress. So it went into the incinerator. They were expecting me to be a big popular star but I didn't come to California to make a spectacle of myself and to be sexy with my titties shaking. So I fired everybody, and told them I'm not a jazz singer, and someone said: "Well, you're black, aren't you?"
She married Max Roach in 1962, and says: "Living with Roach, I learned a lot about an approach to music. Like my mother and father, we were more than musicians. I'd been writing lyrics and Roach wrote the melody and gave me credit for it, ("Abbey is Blue," on the Reversible recording). In these evolutionary times, she was not only confronting racism head on, but also being confronted with what she calls "a male chauvinist society." "Everybody always treated me like I was somebody, and suddenly it was Abbey takes a husband, not Roach takes a wife. He didn't form me or discover me, I already was a cover girl, in the movies, and I already had a recording. But that's the way it is in this work sometimes, and that's life. People resent you or just don't like you. Jon Hendrix did an interview saying if it wasn't for Roach I wouldn't have made it."
In 1964, she was featured in her second film, Nothing But a Man, with Ivan Dixon, a story about the Deep South in the 1960s. In 1968, she played the title character in For Love of Ivy, opposite Sidney Poitier, and appeared in various television series. She subsequently made three records for Riverside, with Kenny Dorham, Wynton Kelly, and Sonny Rollins. She recalls how Sonny remarked that "somebody had said it was going to be a drag (working with me), but it was cool. Once I wrote a lyric to Blue Monk that Thelonious approved ('Monkery's The Blues'). Although he hadn't asked me to write it, I felt like I was a monk too, a Blue Monk. Before he passed away they redistributed Straight Ahead (Candid) and they asked Roach to do the liner notes. He asked Monk for a quote, who said not only was I a great singer and actress, but also a composer. I believed him because I knew that he would not tell me something that wasn't true, he wasn't jive. And that's how I started writing lyrics. Roach taught me the cycle of 5ths and 4ths. I learned how to read a lead sheet, to voice my chords and to express myself not only as a singer and a lyricist, but as a composer. I really respect the singer who sings the song the way the composer wrote it. Otherwise they should write their own songs. Thelonious was eccentric and it takes a lot to live there and to be as brilliant as he was, like everyone else in those days. I knew them and they knew me (not on their level, I didn't go to their house) and liked me; none of them told me I couldn't sing."
In 1970 she divorced Max Roach after a tumultuous eight-year relationship. Being true to herself was what was most important for her in these formative years. "Not doin' or bein' what anybody else thinks," she concludes firmly. I've learned these things through the music, the arts. I don't need a therapist. It comes through the writing. If I write about something that bothers me and sing it for awhile, then I'm free, and I don't complain about anybody in my songs. I'm not scornful, bitter or resentful. I don't stay around long enough. I stopped singing songs a long time ago about unrequited love and a man who was no good. If he's nothing he won't be coming around here. I gave that up and in the process I found other songs to sing. I didn't write songs about being done wrong. I don't like being cursed, threatened or disrespected, by anybody. I wouldn't hang out with anybody who hurts me. It's not my thing. I wasn't raised like that. I wasn't beaten or abused as a child. I know that I'm a queen, nobody has to tell me. That won't work. I stopped complaining about a man and started writing about my own self, praising my life.
"When I do sing about a man I sing his praises. A man is a wonderful creature, the male counterpart to the female." she says, citing what she calls "songs about the world": "Midnight Sun," "Straight Ahead," "The Road Keep Winding," "The People In Me, Throw It Away." "Back around 1973, Oscar Brown Jr called and asked me: 'Are you hip to the I Ching?' So I got this book and I started to throw the changes. One of the hexagrams inspired that song. For me, there are no holy books at all. They're all written by human beings like you and me. Before Duke Ellington passed away, he was working on spiritual songs, but he was always spiritual as far as I'm concerned. Listen to 'Come Sunday' or 'Sophisticated Lady.'" After the divorce, she remained in Southern California, teaching college, living in a small apartment above someone's garage in a self-imposed exile. In 1972 she traveled to Africa where she received two honorary appellations from political officials: Moseka, in Zaire, and Aminata, in Guinea. Upon her return, she would occasionally adopt Moseka as her surname and inspired by storytelling, began to focus more intently on songwriting.
She returned to New York City in the 1980s where she resumed performing and began her successful affiliation with Jean-Philippe Allard, visionary producer and label director of PolyGram (Verve) France. Her first recording in 1990 was The World is Falling Down which was both critically and commercially a success. There would be eight more albums to follow (see Selected Discography), which would include collaborations with Stan Getz and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, along with a who's who of veteran virtuosos like Roy Hargrove, Archie Shepp, Hank Jones, Charlie Haden, Nicholas Payton, and Joe Lovano. In keeping the tradition of Betty Carter, Lincoln recruited a collective pride of young lions, which would include bassist John Ormond, pianists Brandon McCune and Marc Cary, and drummers Jaz Sawyer and Alvester Garnett. Her last recording (2007), Abbey Sings Abbey is an exclusive songbook, performed in an acoustic-roots setting by a weathered but not too weary voice.
Assessing her career a few years before the open-heart surgery (in 2007), which would leave her fragile but still feisty, she said: "I've had a chance to experience it all: the joy and the other, the self-destructive: it's the lack of understanding of a spiritual nature. But the music always comes, it's with us: the African muse. At first the music was spiritual, gospel, blues, then jazz, rock 'n roll, rap, hip hop. It's what we were given as a people because our ancestors practiced it. It had nothing to do with the (music) industry. We're a blessed people. It's pitiful if people don't know what they're given and say they are underprivileged. To have this gift and legacy really makes me thankful; I feel really privileged, and I am."
Abbey Lincoln, Abbey Sings Abbey (Universal Jazz France, 2007)
Abbey Lincoln, Over the Years (Universal Jazz France, 2000)
Abbey Lincoln, Wholly Earth (Polydor/Polygram, 1998)
Abbey Lincoln, Who Used to Dance (Polydor/Polygram, 1997)
Abbey Lincoln, A Turtle's Dream (Polygram, 1995)
Abbey Lincoln, When There is Love (Polydor/Polygram, 1993)
Abbey Lincoln, Devils' Got Your Tongue (Polygram, 1992)
Abbey Lincoln, You Gotta Pay The Band, feat. Stan Getz (Polygram, 1991)
Abbey Lincoln, Painted Lady (Intercord Rec. Stuttgart, 1987)