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Abbey Lincoln: African Queen in a Top Hat

Joan Gannij By

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(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."

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