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Abbey Lincoln: Spirited and Spiritual

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.
Music serves many purposes for people on this planet. It's fun. It can be an escape. It can be soothing and even nostalgic. But for some it carries a deeper meaning, a deeper purpose. In this realm lies the art of Abbey Lincoln. At age 73, she is one of the last of the great jazz singers of her generation. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, now is not the time for considering her epitaph. This artist is still thinking, still expressing, still vital, still producing.

Lincoln is in a sense a blithe spirit, and yet concerned about the world around her. She sees the problems in society and in the world of art and music, yet avoids complaining or blaming. Like her one idol, Billie Holiday, she tells it like it is. Very often she does it in her own words, with her own poetry expressing her inner feelings and her outer attitudes. The evidence comes forth again on Lincoln's 10th CD for Verve records, It's Me. Like her other Verve discs, it's heavily laden with original songs, put across in her direct, musical-yet-theatrical style that has become one of the most poignantly expressive voices in jazz music — especially since her 1990 signing with Verve.

Abbey is an artist, first and foremost. Secure, content, inquisitive. She is sassy and direct in her commentary — and insightful. She can be brash and charming at the same time, chastising what society and the music industry have done to black music and artists, but at the same time maintaining a whimsical stance when looking at life and the big picture of it all. She's both spirited and spiritual.

Lincoln's recorded works, especially on Verve (most notably 1991's You Gotta Pay the Band, with Stan Getz, an all-time classic, and When There is Love the sublime duet project with Hank Jones, 1992) are universally stellar. She sees her work as higher art, not as frivolous notes to help people pass the time.

"Even though I do not know anything, like everybody on this planet, because they forget everything," she says in her distinctive thoughtful, yet playful, tone. "The human being possesses the art of music all over the world. There's no such thing as people without music. It's more than the birds, because the birds don't write it down. Sometimes they improvise, and sometimes they don't. But the human being is maybe designed on a musical pattern. I don't know. But I know we have music and the people in Africa were definitely given it, and that's why people who are musicians can become athletes and all kind of things, because it's good for your health. It cleanses the air that you breathe and it creates other expressions, to dance and sing and play instruments and get it off!"

Add a dash of realism, however. On the downside, "it has to be for money. That's the thing. It's not our fault. This is what it is. Between us and the god of music is the god of money," says Abbey with a knowing laugh. "The god of money has got us up against the wall."

It's Me begins with an elegant version of "Skylark," done in her behind-the-beat style; expressive and clear and resounding. But that's the last of the standards. There are Abbey originals, as well as a song by her late brother, Robert Wooldridge, who she said was a "wonderful singer" but chose instead to become a lawyer, and later a judge. Also, it is the first label recording with Lincoln and an orchestra. Arrangements by Laurent Cugny and Alan Broadbent augment seven tracks.

"I didn't really know what it was until it was done and I was listening to it," she says of the new CD. "It's really about the music. A tribute to the music they call jazz — the best thing that ever happened to me in my life."

"They Call It Jazz" is an open homage to the art form; a ballad given a heartfelt rendering. "Runnin' Wild" is more up-tempo, though Abbey delightfully strolls effortlessly, almost conversationally, despite the quicker pace. "Can You Dig It" offers uplifting advice for those who may be caught up in a crazy world. Masterful musicians like Kenny Barron, Ray Drummond and Jaz Sawyer offer superb support throughout and help Lincoln get her message out.

"I let it come," she says of her compositional method. "But what it mostly is, usually, is about something that I feel, that I realize and it's what I share. It's like having therapy. I can talk about these things and then I can throw it away. Then I'm not burdened with what I'm witnessing. It can be burdensome, because this is really weird, the world that we've been delivered to. So I sing about it. It makes it possible for me to hang in there [laughter]. Otherwise, I'd be lying on the couch, crazy as a loon."

"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.

"I'm the 10th of 12 children. My father midwifed my mother for the last six. He built the house I was born in and grew up in. He also secured a piano for us, because momma didn't work, except in the house, taking care of the children. And she was spiritual. She was beautiful. I was allowed to sit at the piano when I was five years old. I didn't go to it until I was about that age. My mother and father never said to me, 'Anna Marie get off the piano' or 'Anna Marie, play the piano.' They left me alone there. My own space. And none of my brothers and sisters bothered me. They didn't dare.

"I was given this at home. I wasn't abused. I wasn't raped, I wasn't cursed. I got everything I'm wearing right now at home, through my mother and father. I think of my mother every morning. She taught me how to live here, save my soul and not be a victim."
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