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Abbey Lincoln: African Queen in a Top Hat

Joan Gannij By

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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.

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